Authors:Legal Action Group
Last updated:2024-05-24
Family lawyers join forces to support neurodivergent clients
Marc Bloomfield
Description: FLANC logo
Autistic and other neurodivergent children and adults are too often being failed by the family justice system, according to a group of leading practitioners who are calling for urgent reform.
Newly launched FLANC – Family Law Advice for the Neurodivergent Community – aims to raise awareness of the needs of neurodivergent people to ensure reasonable adjustments are made so that they can participate in their cases and be treated fairly. It is calling for the legal sector to learn from best practice in the NHS and introduce compulsory neurodivergence training for all family justice professionals.
Founding members of FLANC include award-winning solicitors Jenny Beck KC (Hon) from Beck Fitzgerald and Alia Lewis from Duncan Lewis. Beck said the new group has received support at the highest levels, including from the president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, who attended its launch.
Beck believes that even an hour’s compulsory training for lawyers and other professionals would make a difference to the way neurodivergence is understood by the family justice system. ‘For some neurodivergent people, it’s very stressful to make eye contact, but lots of judges use demeanour to determine whether someone is credible or not,’ she explained. Training would help judges interpret behaviour more sensitively.
Many measures could be introduced at minimal or no cost, such as turning off strip lighting in courts where someone struggles with bright or flickering lights, or judges using clearer, more literal language. However, wider reforms would require significant investment, including changes to legal aid funding and the fixed-fee scheme. Beck said fixed fees can act for some firms as a financial deterrent from acting for clients who, say, ‘may need to take regular rest breaks or to have everything in writing so they can consider it several times’.
One of FLANC’s priorities is to ensure that the needs of children in public law proceedings are assessed before they are placed in foster care. The complexity of the current funding process militates against this happening at an early stage.
Beck believes earlier assessment would help keep families together and allow them get the support they need. Assessment can identify previously undiagnosed neurodivergent children whose challenging behaviour has hitherto been seen as down to ‘poor parenting’. Where children do need to go into care, placements could be sought that are tailored to their specific needs. ‘Currently, children are often put in a placement first, and assessed second,’ she said, ‘which means we are selling neurodivergent children short.’