Steve Broach, a barrister specialising in the law applying to children and disabled people, looks at how legal rights can be used to protect young people’s quality of life.
Disabled children’s rights to the support they need to lead ordinary lives are under threat.
The next round of cuts to local authority budgets will result in services for vulnerable children below the child protection threshold shrinking, in some areas almost to vanishing point. For example, Community Care magazine recently reported one impact assessment for the cuts taking place in Newcastle as resulting in the ‘increased targeting of residual services on only the most vulnerable’, including that unmet support needs will result in a requirement for more specialist services.
It is at times like the present that the law may have the greatest relevance. The law is about establishing minimums – baselines in terms of both processes to be followed and services to be provided.
When money was flowing into the system, for example under the Aiming High for Disabled Children programme in the late 2000s, the law can take more of a back seat. But when times are tough it is vital that everyone in the system understands the legal entitlements of disabled children, young people and families.
For example, the requirement to provide a sufficient level of short break care under the Breaks for Carers of Disabled Children Regulations 2011 is vital when research from the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign shows that these services are under threat.
It is in this spirit that we have produced the second edition of Disabled Children: A Legal Handbook, written by a team of specialist lawyers. The Handbook aims to give everyone – disabled young people, parents, professionals and legal advisors – clear guidance on the legal requirements across core areas such as education, children’s services, health and housing.
There are also chapters on vital cross cutting principles, including equality and non-discrimination and disabled children and young people’s decision making rights.
The Handbook begins with a chapter summarising the research on the realities of disabled children and young people’s lives.
The test of whether the Handbook has been a success will be whether the gap between the law and reality for disabled children, young people and families gets narrower during its lifetime. That will be no small task in the context of the cuts to services.
If it is to be achieved it will not happen through the courts alone. Although legal processes up to and including judicial review are vital for enforcing rights, the greatest prospect for change comes in my experience from families working together to persuade public bodies to follow the law. I know this works, both with and without the involvement of lawyers, from the positive outcome to disputes in relation to education and care services across the country.
All the chapters of the Handbook can be downloaded free of charge from the Council for Disabled Children website. Hard copies are available from the Legal Action Group.
Steve Broach, a co-author of the Handbook, is a barrister at Monckton Chambers in London. He has a wide-ranging public law practice with a particular focus on the law and policy affecting children and disabled people. Prior to becoming a barrister, Steve worked extensively in the voluntary sector on behalf of disabled children and adults.