England

'Gloating' SEN tweets law firm Baker Small paid millions

Baker Small sign
Image caption Baker Small has secured payments or contracts worth almost £3m with local councils since 2010

A law firm criticised for mocking parents of children with special needs has been paid millions of pounds in legal fees by local authorities.

Baker Small, which tweeted gloating comments about families it had won cases against, has secured £3m in payments and contracts since 2010.

Critics said the spend was "depressing" and could have been used to help children rather than "fight parents".

Baker Small's Mark Small said he regretted the tweets posted in June.

But he defended the money paid to his firm for representing councils in tribunals to contest claims for funding and support by families of children with special educational needs (SEN).

A total of £3m was earmarked for - or paid to - the company by local authorities across the country between 2010 and 2016; £1.7m was earmarked or spent in the last year.

BBC analysis of Ministry of Justice data shows councils currently lose 86% of cases that go to tribunal, despite spending millions on legal advisors such as Baker Small.

Image caption Baker Small apologised after tweeting about winning a case against parents of children with special educational needs

"Once you've been an idiot on Twitter, it's quite easy to then have a go at other things that are non-specific," Mr Small said.

"Ultimately, you put your case before a tribunal and the tribunal makes a decision."

Analysis of the data also revealed the workload of the tribunal is increasing, though most cases are conceded before they are heard or settled though mediation.

The government changed the rules around SEN children in 2014 to make it more responsive and less adversarial.

Top spending local authorities on Baker Small 2010-16

£3m

Total value of council spending and contracts on Baker Small's services

  • £600,000 "Estimated contract value" between Baker Small and Norfolk County Council

  • £532,000 Herts Council spend on Baker Small 2010-16

  • £352,000 Cambridgeshire Council spend 2010-16

  • £302,000 Worcestershire Council spend 2010-16

BBC

How Baker Small operates:

  • The firm was employed in cases where local authorities were in dispute with parents over what they were prepared to provide SEN children
  • Disputes ranged from differences over specific therapies or school placements to outright refusal to assess children
  • Any disagreements go to the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Tribunal
  • Parents will either represent themselves, pay for lawyers/specialist witnesses out of their own pocket or - in a very small minority of cases - obtain legal aid
  • As well as representing them at tribunal, Baker Small offer local authorities training on handling appeals

What is the provision for children with SEN?

The firm issued an apology after being accused of laughing at parents. A number of local authorities dispensed with Baker Small's services following the row.

The council spending data for Baker Small was collated by a group of parents from local authority spending and contractual declarations throughout England. The BBC has validated their research.

Matt Keer, one of the parents, said it was "depressing" to find £1.7m had been spent or earmarked in the last financial year.

He said: "£1.7m might not sound eyebrow-raising, but when you realise what it could have been used for, it's appalling."

He said the money could have paid for 25,000 hours of specialised speech and language therapy, rather than "adversarially - to fight parents".

Mr Small said claims his company used bullying tactics were "utter rubbish".

'They were aggressive, intimidating'

Margaret Collins from Cambridge won her case at the Special Education Needs Tribunal in 2014 over the care offered to her autistic son, Henry.

She was contesting Cambridgeshire County Council's refusal, represented by Baker Small, to fund Applied Behavioural Analysis - a form of autism therapy - for Henry.

Her criticism is echoed by several other parents the BBC has spoken to.

"Baker Small tried to put in a load of last-minute evidence after all the deadlines had passed," she said.

"Their behaviour was very aggressive, quite intimidating.

"After the tribunal I was not capable of doing much for a year. It was quite traumatic, and quite unnecessary. And where is Henry in all of this?

"Why do they choose someone who is so aggressive and obstructs the process so badly?

"Our local authority ought to call in parents who have had tribunals, get our experiences and listen to us.

"It's a terrible waste of money and energy and has a terribly destructive effect on families.

"They're supposed to be there to help your child".

Baker Small deny using questionable tactics.

Director Mark Small said: "This thing about tactics and conduct of tribunals on behalf of local authorities is just not true."

He said his company had tried to "look at improving decision making before it gets anywhere near a dispute, because that is often the problem".

He did, however, admit that in some cases "additional evidence comes to light or is provided late".

The Children and Families Act (2014) replaced the previous system of statements with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) with the aim of making the system less adversarial.

Richard Watts, Chairman of the Local Government Association's Children and Young People Board, said he understood the pressure on parents with SEN children, but added a "lack of funding means there's real pressure on councils".

A spokesman for Cambridgeshire County Council, which had paid Baker Small at least £350,000 since 2011 and dispensed with its services since the Twitter row, said the authority had "finite resources and resourcing decisions [which] have to be fair and equitable for all children and young people".

"Unfortunately this can mean that disagreements are escalated to requiring a decision from a tribunal," he added.

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