John Furlong and Derek Tilley work within our Legal Entitlements and Problem-solving Project. They help families to understand what their legal rights are and what they can do if they fail to get the support they need.
In this article Derek and John suggest some practical approaches to resolving commonly occurring health and social care difficulties.
Having support can be one of the best ways of effectively resolving difficulties. Support can come in different forms; it can be emotional, practical on how to proceed, support that empowers you and helps you persevere. Support can help validate your experience – you are not being unrealistic in your request for help and you are not the only person that finds yourself with a particular problem. Support can be found in online on twitter, Facebook, Mumsnet as well as local support groups.
Know your rights and entitlements
Knowing what you and your child are entitled to is very important and forms the basis of resolving difficulties. It can establish whether what you are asking for is reasonable (and not special treatment). It can empower you, creates a sense of legitimacy and provides a basis to challenge decision making by a public body if you think they are not following the law. Good sources of information are Cerebra, ISPEA, SOSSEN, the National Autistic Society, Contact, Special Needs Jungle, Council For Disabled Children.
Write everything down
In almost all cases, resolving complaints will depend on evidence. This applies whether you are going through the public bodies’ complaints process, the Local Government Ombudsman, SEND Tribunal or judicial review. Although it is onerous, it is important to write everything down. This means make requests by email, keeping notes of telephone conversations and minutes of meetings. Without having a written record, the chance of successfully making a complaint is reduced.
Get decisions in writing with reasons
Similarly, if you are told something in a meeting or by telephone by a public body, ask for it in writing. This is a good way of confirming your understanding of what was said and can head off problems at an early stage. Public law principals mean that when a public body makes a decision it should provide that decision to you in writing with reasons. If you disagree with the decision, this written explanation will be the starting point for you to challenge the decision. Without knowing why (and, in fact if) a decision has been made, there can be no challenge to it.
How can I complain?
It is important to complain properly. Get a copy of the public body’s relevant complaints policy and follow it to the letter. Familiarise yourself with the deadline that the public body should respond by and chase it up if they are missed. There is statutory guidance for complaints involving children’s social services including cases involving adoption and special guardianship. If you try to short cut the complaints policy and go directly to an independent arbitrator, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman for instance, you run the very real risk of being sent back to complete the complaints procedure and waste valuable time.
Be polite, be assertive, be concise
The tone of correspondence is very important: by all means write assertively but at all times be polite and do not make personal attacks. What you write may become evidence if your case progresses to independent arbitration so you want to demonstrate that you are being reasonable in everything that you write. And try to be concise: you want the reader to give it the maximum attention and not be put off by pages and pages of text. Wherever possible, try to keep the main body of the letter or email to a maximum of the equivalent of two sides of A4: use bullet points if necessary and think about using footnotes for references so as not to interrupt the flow. If you need to include a lot of information, for instance a long chronology of events, consider putting it in an appendix, the reader can then choose to refer to it as and when necessary.
Park peripheral questions
Situations parents find themselves dealing with are often very complicated and have a long history. It is very important to concentrate on the important issue to hand and concentrate on getting a resolution to that. For the time put the less important issues to one side for the time being, you can always return to them in the future if they are still important to you.
Don’t let delay happen
Delay is a very common issue, you suddenly realise that the report you had been promised three months ago still has not arrived, and that is time neither you and your child will get again. The solution is not to let it happen in the first place. It is important to be organised and make a note of given timelines. Use a system that works for you: a diary, a calendar (physical or electronic) or even a spreadsheet. If the timeline is not met, email the practitioner concerned and give them a reasonable time in which you now expect a response, for instance 5 or 10 working days. You may want to point out the harm that the delay is causing to your child, you and your family in general. It you still do not get a response with the new deadline chase it up again, this time you may want to consider copying in the practitioner’s manager or/and the Head of Service. Be persistent but reasonable (please see ‘Be polite, be assertive, be concise’ above).
If you are facing difficulties with official agencies in trying to access the health, social care and education support services you and your child are entitled to, our Accessing Public Services Toolkit can help. It identifies common issues and offers strategies to help resolve them without resorting to legal action.
Finding the right words when writing to official bodies can be difficult. We’ve created a series of template letters to make it less daunting for you if you need to write to your local council, social services or health body. Our template letters contain legal information and where necessary we have different templates for England, Wales and Scotland. View our template letters here.
Our innovative Legal Entitlements and Problem-Solving (LEaP) Project and the Legal Rights Service that runs alongside it have come out of our collaboration with the University of Leeds School of Law. The provides legal help and support to families who are having problems accessing health, social care or other services.
This article is a summary of the speech made at our Legal Entitlements and Problem Solving for Disabled People, their Families and Carers held in October 2022. You can view more from the conference here.