As you may well be aware, there was a considerable outcry on social media and elsewhere concerning messages posted by the Managing Partner of Baker Small, the firm of solicitors retained by the County Council to provide legal advice relating to SEND and to represent the Council in Tribunals.
In response, the Steering Group agreed that I should send a letter to the Cabinet Member for Education and Skills setting out our concerns and our view of the response the County should make. The content of the letter is copied below and the response from County.
Dear Councillor Mohammed,
I am writing concerning the above firm of solicitors who are retained by Bucks County Council to defend Tribunals and to give legal advice about Special Education; and in particular in connection with the recent posts made by Baker Small on social media which have been widely reported online and in the print media. I know you are fully briefed on this issue and have been active in responding to it with relevant officers from the Council. I have been in discussion with Gill Shurrock, Head of SEN, on this subject and she has maintained the open and honest relationship which we have come to value on this and other SEND issues.
I have no doubt that you can appreciate that parent carers are rightly appalled that a retained adviser of the County could make such comments. Unfortunately, the view of many parents who have experienced the tribunal system in recent years, is that the views expressed are not isolated mistakes but reflect an underlying attitude. The drift towards adversarial tribunals has been dramatic and as a result, a traumatic one for parents, providing the most significant source of discontent.
I have now seen the statement made to the press that the County has suspended Baker Small pending the investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. I am also aware that the SEN team are already engaged in a process of making alternative arrangements for the cases currently underway and that parent/carers will receive updated information as soon as practicable. These events have reassured FACT Bucks that the County has taken on board the serious nature of this incident and remains committed to open dialogue with parent carers.
As the voice of parent carers in the County, FACT Bucks believes that whatever the results of the investigation, parent carers will not be able to trust this firm to work within the spirit of the Reforms. If the County continues its relationship, so the County will also be tainted by the same lack of trust.
Given the commitment to co-production, which is at the heart of the SEND reforms, it would seem an ideal opportunity to take stock of the tribunal situation within our local area and use the experience of parent carers to build a better approach that underlines the commitment to placing the needs of Children and Young People with SEND at its heart.
As Chair of the Parent Carer Forum I am more aware than most of the efforts made by the Council at Councillor and Officer level to ensure that Children & Young People with SEND and their families are at the heart of all that is undertaken. We urge you to act in such ways as to reassure parent carers that your commitment remains.
We have now received the following reply:
"Thank you for your email and concerns raised. As you have mentioned we have not taken this issue lightly and took the decision that we did. Going forward we will consider reviewing the process and will be in touch in due course."
Whilst we had hoped to receive a more detailed reply, we will continue to push for the Council to take clear action and also for them to engage with us in a review of the whole tribunal process.
With best wishes
Chair FACT Bucks