Parents of children with special educational needs who have been forced to fight stressful and demanding legal cases to seek proper support from Croydon Council have won a small victory by getting the Town Hall to cancel arrangements for legal advice to be provided by controversial firm of solicitors, Baker Small.
Baker Small was exposed after sending tweets celebrating victory in tribunals where they had blocked special educational support for children. The tweets boasted a “great win” over parents of vulnerable children. Some described Baker Small’s attitude as “inhumane”, “callous” and “despicable”.
The firm later deleted the tweets and said that it had bunged a few bob (it never specified the value of its donation) to a children’s charity, in a conscience-salving exercise.
The law firm’s founder, Mark Small, said he was “deeply, deeply sorry” for the callous and tasteless tweets, before admitting that the real reason for his sorrow was that, “from a publicity point of view, it is a disaster”.
From a business point of view, Small’s social media boasting is looking to be a disaster, too, as several local authorities, including Croydon, have pulled the plug on Baker Small’s publicly funded fees.
According to Croydon Council’s own records, Baker Small has had a £27,500 quarterly retainer with the local authority, at least since October 2014 – worth £110,000 per year for providing legal advice at tribunals which determine whether children will receive specialist support. Baker Small is estimated to have been paid £1 million per year for its work for local authorities around the country – which suggests that Croydon was among its bigger clients.
As many as 20 local authorities used the specialist law firm where a director is nicknamed “The Terminator”. Many parents who have encountered them regard Baker Small as simply a local authority “hitman” in a benefits system stacked against them.
Croydon council leader Tony Newman responded to the reports in The Guardian newspaper by announcing that the borough is suspending any work with Baker Small immediately and reviewing its position in future.
But parents who have been put through the wringer at tribunals as they have been forced to battle for proper support for their children have demanded permanent cancellation of Baker Small’s business with the council, while unions at the Town Hall have also questioned again how the council’s legal department has pursued tribunal cases.
The use of a firm such as Baker Small also highlights, yet again, how council employees – what those who inhabit the unreal world of Fisher’s Folly call “officers” – determine the direction and policy of the council, often without a look-in from our elected councillors.
“Croydon Council’s supposed to have an ethical procurement policy,” one parent with a child with learning difficulties and who has been forced to contest told Inside Croydon. “And yet they have been spending hundreds of thousands of pounds with a law firm like Baker Small to block ordinary parents getting the support that they need and are entitled to.
“Whoever appointed Baker Small at Croydon Council should be ashamed.”
A union official who works in Croydon also questioned the council’s legal department and successive chief executives’ attitude to tribunal cases. “It’s not just with SEN cases that the council has been hiring legal guns-for-hire at the expense of Council Tax-payers to drive through questionable cases,” said the council employee.
“Under the council’s leadership of Jon Rouse and Nathan Elvery, the Borough Solicitor’s office pursued a ruthless approach against anyone who dared contest their redundancies, spending many thousands of pounds to crush any cases through the Employment Tribunals.
“It almost amounted to council-funded bullying. They knew the unions have limited resources for such cases, and that individuals going to ET would not be able to match the number of solicitors and employment law specialists that they could pay for.”
The council’s redundancy drives saw numerous challenges from erstwhile staff through employment courts. In 2012 one former Croydon employee, Nadine Graham, a young mother, committed suicide after losing her ET case against the council. Her family submitted evidence to the coroner’s hearing that Graham’s suicide was linked to her losing her job and the way the ET case was pursued against her.
While the SEN tribunal cases have not produced any such tragedies, the Baker Small tweets did show the mask slipping, as the well-paid lawyers expressed their true feelings.
The Milton Keynes-based company has for years caused unease among parents concerned by the “adversarial” nature of its pursuit of cases on behalf of local authorities, such as Croydon.
“This company was not just celebrating a win, they were laughing at the parents who had lost,” Debs Aspland, the author of the Special Needs Minefield blog, said. “Somehow, the child at the centre of this didn’t appear even to be considered.”
As The Guardian reported, “The anger over the law firm’s flippant postings has roots in a deeper unease at local authorities’ increasing determination to fight parents at tribunal for funding of their children’s special needs provision.”
The unimpressed Croydon parent, who endured a SEN tribunal against the council, said. “The struggle to get any support for children with special needs is inhumane. In Croydon, Healthwatch produced a damning report in March of how isolating and stressful the situation is for families with autistic children.
“I see whole families driven into distress and mental health problems because the burden is overwhelming. These cases should not be going through protracted legal cases at all. It results in the poor giving up and only those who can afford top lawyers getting proper support.”
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