The conclusions of a short research study into the difficulties facing individuals with learning disabilities when they need to access legal services has been published by the University of Bristol.
The report, What happens when people with learning disabilities need advice about the law?, which was jointly commissioned by the Legal Services Board, the Legal Services Consumer Panel and Mencap, considered the barriers preventing people with learning disabilities, or their families and carers, from accessing legal services when they needed them. The study considered key areas where individuals with learning disabilities needed access to legal services including domestic abuse, bullying and hate crime, discrimination and offending.
Care proceedings were one of the key areas of concern. One study found that 12.5% of parents involved in care proceedings had learning disabilities. In one local authority looked at by another study, one sixth of care proceedings involved at least one parent with learning disabilities and in three quarters of these cases the children were removed. It has been shown that learning disabled parents often have no support in their involvement with child protection agencies or courts and are often not advised to seek legal representation by children's services.
Access to justice is a human rights issue and the study has been carried out against the backdrop of the 2006 UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by the UK in 2009. Article 5 of the Convention states specifically the rights of disabled people in relation to the law and their rights to be free from discrimination. To add to their struggle to access justice, it is likely that learning disabled clients will be disproportionately affected by legal aid cuts under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
The report recommends that accessible information for people with learning disabilities should be developed, to explain to them what legal services are for and how they can access them. It also suggests that further information and resources should be produced for the use of families and carers where they need to access legal services on behalf of others. Professional training for legal practitioners is recommended to improve awareness and knowledge about learning disabilities. Finally, it was suggested that collaborative working between the legal services and social care sector in this area be promoted.