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Councils review ties with law firm that boasted of 'win' in SEN case

A law firm that advises councils and schools on education law, Baker Small, has issued an unreserved apology after messages were sent via its Twitter account appearing to boast about a court ‘win’ over parents of children with special educational needs.

However, a number of local authorities have since announced that they are to suspend work with the firm, stop giving it new cases or review their arrangements at a meeting with the legal practice.

Cambridgeshire County Council was the first authority to take action, saying via Twitter that “having taken legal advice”, it would not be using the firm for new cases. It later issued a statement by a senior officer saying the tweets had caused damage to parental confidence.

A complaint was also made by a Twitter user to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

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The original 'tweets', which have been deleted but were screen shot by another user of Twitter, included:

  • “Crikey, had a great “win” last week which sent some parents into a storm! It is always a great win when the other side thinks they won!”
  • “Great ABA Trib win this week….interesting to see how parents continue to persist with it. Funny thing is parents think they won ;)” (ABA stands for applied behavioural analysis)
  • “Whenever someone thinks they have won and they have conceded 90% of their case, it does make me smile…”

A number of Twitter users criticised the firm for the messages’ content and were reportedly blocked. Further tweets from the Baker Small account read:

  • “When parental solicitors champion their ‘wins’, they are lauded on Twitter. Double standards I’m afraid”
  • “Some great tweets received today from people who just see a one sided argument…. Just shared them with my cat”, accompanied by a picture of a kitten (apparently yawning or laughing)
  • “Shame about the football but nice to be relaxing on twitter at the end of a busy week”, accompanied by a picture of a swimming pool and a villa.

Baker Small later issued an apology, saying the tweets were “not appropriate” and that it would make a donation to a charity.

In a statement posted on Twitter the next day, Mark Small, managing director, said: “.....We take our position as legal advisors to public bodies and also to parents very seriously and we recognise the complex nature of the SEN and Disability legal system. We have tweeted our experiences many ties and engaged in tweets with our followers about the daily challenges of that system. It is with regret that yesterday, tweets were sent from us which were not acceptable regardless of the context.

“We recognise the struggles of the system and the challenges faced by Parents, Young People and public bodies following the implementation of the Children and Families Act. There will always be disputes but we recognise the importance of maintaining dialogue in trying to resolve them without the need for lawyers or conflict. We fully appreciate the stress of the Tribunal system and have ourselves challenged its robustness and ability to deal with cases quickly, fairly and justly.

“We do not wish, on any level, to cause distress and upset to Parents and Carers and it is with sincere regret that we have let ourselves down by publishing tweets which are not representative of the work or approach we adopt. We represent many families successfully across the UK and we are sorry to have let them down.

“We are aware of complaints which have been made and will address those with the appropriate authorities as required. Please accept our sincere apologies.”

An apology subsequently posted by Small on the firm’s website, which appears to have crashed, read: “I have apologised unreservedly for the tweets which were sent out from the Baker Small Twitter account. The actions were taken by me in response to some very distasteful emails I received prior to the offensive postings being made.

I did not want to release the particular content of that email because I have yet to decide whether to take the matter to the police. However, given the tide of further abusive, personal and threatening emails and phone calls, I am now receiving, I wanted it known what comments we receive from the public in providing advice to local authorities and in particular the email which led to the offending tweets being sent out:

“I have heard a Parent had a nasty Tribunal experience with you this week Mr Small, you cxxt…. Challenging their use of ABA – a vital cushion of support for them. Cxxt.  Represent LAs, cxxt…..hey….. how come you are such an exploitative bunch of scum bag cxxts? You, Mr Small are a fxxxxg cxxt and should look in the mirror at yourself.  Your family should be vigilant...think about it.” [Bold in Baker Small's statement]

My clients, who are predominantly local authority SEN teams, will similarly receive emails of this nature on a daily basis from parents. Unfortunately, these are emails I receive all too frequently and usually I am able to deal with them. I understand the feelings behind them and the frustration caused by the SEN system and the feeling that every step is a battle. I recognise as a solicitor, that it is not acceptable to rise to any form of provocation and certainly not via social media. A lesson painfully learned.

That said, the episode has highlighted issues within the SEN System that should be debated and perhaps this unsavoury incident will lead to that discussion taking place. We advise local authorities and parents and look to try and resolve disputes through disagreement resolution, mediation and discussion. The majority of cases are settled and in the favour of parents.

We are also proud of the work we have done for parents, which includes providing pro-bono and advocacy support. We are grateful to them for their positive comments and I know that they know the "true Baker Small".

Within this system, the government has created a legal process to resolve disputes, an SEN Tribunal. We are instructed to try and uphold the decision of a local authority at a Tribunal and most of our cases concern requests for independent school provision, which local authorities are being asked to fund. This process has become increasingly adversarial and in my view is one of the worst case managed processes in our legal system. It leads to long drawn out "battles" and results in rather nasty proceedings and leaves an unpleasant taste for all sides. Better case management would filter out cases and lead to more positive outcomes and better working relationships. 

I hope that the incident will lead to a full and honest look at the SEN System and hopefully lead to more resources, funding and support being made available, rather than the awful mess that parents, carers, local authorities and settings find themselves in as a result of the Children and Families Act.”

After its 'tweet', Cambridgeshire County Council subsequently said in a statement that it had decided to set up alternative arrangements for new cases.

Adrian Loades, its Executive Director for Children, Families and Adults, said: “We can confirm that we will no longer be using Baker Small for new cases. We recognise the damage that these tweets have done to parental confidence and by extension to the potential relationship between the county council and parents. 

“There can be different views between parents and the local authority in respect of SEN support to children, and we always work hard to avoid this relationship becoming adversarial if at all possible.

“There will be current cases that Baker Small are holding on our behalf, and these will be reviewed on a case by case basis. In some instances it may be better for all parties that Baker Small retain the case in order to avoid delay or disruption to decision making.”

Norfolk County Council went further, saying it had informed the law firm - with which it has spent £120,000 in the past year - that it would "be making arrangements to cease working with them as soon as possible"

In a statement Norfolk said: "Whilst we have noted Baker Small’s apology on this matter our view is that tweets posted over the weekend were wholly inappropriate and do not in any way reflect how this council wishes to work with families.

"There are current cases that Baker Small are holding on our behalf, and we will be in direct contact with the families concerned and the Tribunal offices to advise them of our revised arrangements for these and on a case by case basis."

Gloucestershire County Council meanwhile said via Twitter: "We're very disappointed w/@bakersmall tweets. We'll consider all services provided by them @ contract meeting - this top of agenda".

Buckinghamshire County Council said: "We have today suspended work with Baker Small until further notice. Plans being put in place and families to be advised as appropriate."

Hertfordshire County Council also said on Tuesday: "Following insensitive comments made by #Bakersmall, we are meeting with them shortly to consider the terms of our contract with them."

On Wednesday it tweeted: "#bakersmall will no longer represent us on new cases. We will terminate our association with them at the earliest possible opportunity."

An SRA spokesperson said: “We take all complaints seriously and we will look at all the available evidence before deciding on an appropriate course of action.”

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