Tag Archives: learning disability

Court gives guidance on how to ensure fair proceedings for learning disabled parents

You may also be interested in this post about supporting parents with learning disabilities in care proceedings. 

In the case of Re A [2013] the Court of Appeal had ordered a retrial due to concerns that a father with learning difficulties had not had a fair hearing regarding findings that he had inflicted an injury on his child.

At the re-trial, Mr Justice Baker gave the following advice on how to conduct proceedings where a party is vulnerable due to a learning disability.

(a) There is duty on those acting for the parent(s) to identify their client’s need for assistance in responding to questions and giving instructions, which must be considered by representatives at the outset of their instruction.  Any need for support must be addressed at the earliest opportunity.

(b) When this is known prior to the outset of proceedings, on issuing, local authorities should draw the issue of competence and capacity to the court’s attention. In turn, on the day following issue, the court will give directions for the appointment of a litigation friend.

(c) When the issue of capacity and competence is not identified at the outset, it should be addressed fully at the case management hearing.  At that hearing, those representing the parents should apply for special measures, where the case for such measures can be made out without any expert advice. Alternatively, where expert advice is necessary to identify the existence or extent of the learning difficulties, they should make an application in accordance with Part 25 of the Family Proceedings Rules for an expert to carry out an immediate assessment of the capacity and competence of the party.

(d) The legal representatives should normally by the date of the case management hearing identify an agency to assist their client to give evidence through an intermediary or otherwise if the court concludes that such measures are required.  If the court is satisfied that an expert report is necessary to determine whether the party lacks capacity or competence and/or as to the extent of any special measures required, it may direct a further case management hearing to take place once the expert has reported so that detailed directions can then be given for the instruction of an intermediary and/or such other assistance as may be necessary.

(e) So far as funding is concerned, there is a distinction between the cost of obtaining a report from an expert as to capacity and competence, and the cost of providing services from an intermediary.  The former will, subject to the approval of the legal aid agency,whereas the latter, as a type of interpretation service, will be borne by the Court Service.  Those representing the relevant party should address these funding issues at the earliest opportunity.  They should obtain prior approval from the legal aid agency for the instruction of the expert and, as soon as possible, give notice to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service that the services of an intermediary are likely to be required.

A further important case is Re D (No 3) [2016] where the President set out the following as an Annex to his judgment.

Extract from the judgment of Gillen J in Re G and A (Care Order: Freeing Order: Parents with a Learning Disability) [2006] NIFam 8, para 5:

“(1) An increasing number of adults with learning difficulties are becoming parents. The Baring Foundation report records that whilst there are no precise figures on the number of parents with learning difficulties in the population, the most recent statistics come from the First National Survey of Adults with Learning Difficulties in England, where one in fifteen of the adults interviewed had children. Whatever the figure it is generally recognised that their number is steadily rising and that they represent a sizable population whose special needs require to be adequately addressed. The Baring Foundation report refers to national policy in England and Scotland committing government to “supporting parents with learning disabilities in order to help them, wherever possible, to ensure their children gain maximum life chance benefits.” Nonetheless the courts must be aware that surveys show that parents with learning disabilities are apparently more likely than other parents to have their children removed them and permanently placed outside the family home. In multidisciplinary jurisdiction such as the Family Division, it is important that the court is aware of such reports at least for the purposes of comment. It is important to appreciate these currents because the Children Order (Northern Ireland) 1995 places an emphasis on supporting the family so that children can remain with them and obligations under disability discrimination legislation make public services accessible to disabled people (including parents with learning difficulties). Moreover the advent of the Human Rights Act 1998 plays an important role in highlighting the need to ensure the rights of such parents under Articles 6 and 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”).

(2) People with a learning disability are individuals first and foremost and each has a right to be treated as an equal citizen. Government policy emphasises the importance of people with a learning disability being supported to be fully engaged playing a role in civic society and their ability to exercise their rights and responsibilities needs to be strengthened. They are valued citizens and must be enabled to use mainstream services and be fully included in the life of the community as far as possible. The courts must reflect this and recognise their need for individual support and the necessity to remove barriers to inclusion that create disadvantage and discrimination. To that extent courts must take all steps possible to ensure that people with a learning disability are able to actively participate in decisions affecting their lives. They must be supported in ways that take account of their individual needs and to help them to be as independent as possible.

(3) It is important that a court approaches these cases with a recognition of the possible barriers to the provision of appropriate support to parents including negative or stereotypical attitudes about parents with learning difficulties possibly on the part of staff in some Trusts or services. An extract from the Baring Foundation report provides a cautionary warning:
“For example, it was felt that some staff in services whose primary focus was not learning difficulties (eg in children and family teams) did not fully understand the impact of having learning difficulties on individual parents’ lives; had fixed ideas about what would happen to the children of parents with learning difficulties and wanted an outcome that did not involve any risks (which might mean them being placed away from their family); expected parents with learning difficulties to be ‘perfect parents’ and had extremely high expectations of them. Different professionals often had different concepts of parenting against which parents were assessed. Parents’ disengagement with services, because they felt that staff had a negative view of them and ‘wanted to take their children away’ was also an issue, as were referrals to support services which were too late to be of optimum use to the family – often because workers lacked awareness of parents’ learning difficulties or because parents had not previously been known to services”.

(4) This court fully accepts that parents with learning difficulties can often be “good enough” parents when provided with the ongoing emotional and practical support they need. The concept of “parenting with support” must underpin the way in which the courts and professionals approach wherever possible parents with learning difficulties. The extended family can be a valuable source of support to parents and their children and the courts must anxiously scrutinize the possibilities of assistance from the extended family. Moreover the court must also view multi-agency working as critical if parents are to be supported effectively. Courts should carefully examine the approach of Trusts to ensure this is being done in appropriate cases. In particular judges must make absolutely certain that parents with learning difficulties are not at risk of having their parental responsibilities terminated on the basis of evidence that would not hold up against normal parents. Their competences must not be judged against stricter criteria or harsher standards than other parents. Courts must be acutely aware of the distinction between direct and indirect discrimination and how this might be relevant to the treatment of parents with learning difficulties in care proceedings. In particular careful consideration must be given to the assessment phase by a Trust and in the application of the threshold test.

(5) Parents must be advised by social workers about their legal rights, where to obtain advice, how to find a solicitor and what help might be available to them once a decision has been taken to pursue a care application. Too narrow a focus must not be placed exclusively on the child’s welfare with an accompanying failure to address parents’ needs arising from their disability which might impact adversely on their parenting capacity. Parents with learning disabilities should be advised of the possibility of using an advocate during their case eg from the Trust itself or from Mencap and clear explanations and easy to understand information about the process and the roles of the different professionals involved must be disclosed to them periodically. Written information should be provided to such parents to enable them to consider these matters at leisure and with their advocate or advisers. Moreover Trusts should give careful consideration to providing child protection training to staff working in services for adults with learning disabilities. Similarly those in children’s services need training about adults with learning disabilities. In other words there is a strong case to be made for new guidelines to be drawn up for such services working together with a joint training programme. I endorse entirely the views of the Guardian ad Litem in this case when she responded to the “Finding the Right Support” paper by stating:
“As far as I am aware there are no ‘family teams’ in the Trusts designated to support parents with a learning disability. In my opinion this would be a positive development. The research also suggests that a learning disability specialist could be designated to work within family and childcare teams and a child protection specialist could be designated to work within learning disability teams. If such professionals were to be placed in the Trusts in Northern Ireland they could be involved in drawing up a protocol for joint working, developing guidelines, developing expertise in research, awareness of resources and stimulating positive practice. They could also assist in developing a province-wide forum that could build links between the Trusts, the voluntary sector and the national and international learning disability community.”

(6) The court must also take steps to ensure there are no barriers to justice within the process itself. Judges and magistrates must recognise that parents with learning disabilities need extra time with solicitors so that everything can be carefully explained to them. Advocates can play a vital role in supporting parents with learning difficulties particularly when they are involved in child protection or judicial processes. In the current case, the court periodically stopped (approximately after each hour), to allow the Mencap representative to explain to the parents what was happening and to ensure that an appropriate attention span was not being exceeded. The process necessarily has to be slowed down to give such parents a better chance to understand and participate. This approach should be echoed throughout the whole system including LAC reviews. All parts of the Family justice system should take care as to the language and vocabulary that is utilised. In this case I was concerned that some of the letters written by the Trust may not have been understood by these parents although it was clear to me that exhortations had been given to the parents to obtain the assistance of their solicitors (which in fact was done). In terms therefore the courts must be careful to ensure that the supposed inability of parents to change might itself be an artefact of professionals ineffectiveness in engaging with the parents in appropriate terms. Courts must not rush to judge, but must gather all the evidence within a reasonable time before making a determination. Steps must be taken to ensure that parents have a meaningful and informed access to reports, time to discuss the reports and an opportunity to put forward their own views. Not only should the hearing involve special measures, including a break in sessions, but it might also include permission that parents need not enter the court until they are required if they so wish. Moreover the judges should be scrupulous to ensure that an opportunity is given to parents with learning disabilities to indicate to the court that something is occurring which is beyond their comprehension and that measures must be taken to deal with that. Steps should also be taken throughout the process to ensure that parents with learning disabilities are not overwhelmed by unnecessarily large numbers of persons being present at meetings or hearings.

(7) Children of parents with learning difficulties often do not enter the child protection system as the result of abuse by their parents. More regularly the prevailing concerns centre on a perceived risk of neglect, both as the result of the parents’ intellectual impairments, and the impact of the social and economic deprivation commonly faced by adults with learning difficulties. It is in this context that a shift must be made from the old assumption that adults with learning difficulties could not parent to a process of questioning why appropriate levels of support are not provided to them so that they can parent successfully and why their children should often be taken into care. At its simplest, this means a court carefully inquiring as to what support is needed to enable parents to show whether or not they can become good enough parents rather than automatically assuming that they are destined to fail. The concept of “parenting with support” must move from the margins to the mainstream in court determinations.

(8) Courts must ensure that careful consideration is given to ensuring that any decision or judgment is fully explained to such parents. In this case I caused a copy of the judgment to be provided to the parties at least one day before I handed it down to facilitate it being explained in detail before the attendance at court where confusion and consternation could be caused by a lengthy judgment being read which the parents could not follow at the time.”