Family Law

Vulnerable Clients11.07.17

Liz Shaw, in her article entitled ‘Words’, provides a personal and practical insight into representing vulnerable clients, including those with learning difficulties/disabilities.


“It’s only words, words are all I have…”

Who else remembers the ballad by the Bee Gees? The irony for me is that in a job where I “talk in everlasting words” as the song says, I have a son who is Autistic. He has a speech and language communication disorder amongst other disabilities. Over the last 15 years my son has either; not spoken at all, attempted to speak and been unintelligible, until optimum has been reached, he speaks. But he doesn’t always understand. When tired by everyday situations or stressed by issues I can’t comprehend the level of anxiety it evokes within him, he is either; not be able to find his words, forgets words, or just completely misunderstands.

Over his childhood he has learnt a lot of speech and social skills by rote. This is very deceptive and misleading that he really does know what’s happening. So I repeat, reinforce and break things down into simple steps for him. I have used pictures for support as visual is easier when words fail him or me! His resilience is very humbling. His everyday life must be exhausting and bewildering.

My son is often at the forefront of my mind when I am working with clients who may not be able to read, write or have learning disabilities or difficulties. It’s simple things that can make the difference. Most clients have usually a solid relationship with their solicitor by the time they meet me, their Barrister. So I prefer to meet these clients well in advance of any hearing, preferably at their solicitor’s offices where they are in familiar surroundings. One lady’s anxiety was so great the solicitor and I sent her a photo of me in advance. It was a tactic used with my son and had helped alleviate anxiety for him. I find it best to meet little and often, clients with learning disabilities or difficulties need breaks to process what’s been said. I always try and quit whilst ahead, achieve the goal of the meeting and call it a day. Recap at the beginning of the next meeting and then cover the next point. If they can read I may use a written checklist of issues, and use big font with simple words.

Keeping language simple, avoiding jargon. An approach we are often advised to use. It’s a different style of speech, “I am Liz. I talk to the Judge for you” is an example of how I go about it. I accept it’s quite hard to explain the threshold criteria in this manner!! Depending upon the ability of the client I have had to use pictures or visual aids. I had one particular client who found it hard to verbally express, particularly when in court, how she felt, so we used a series of flash cards she could just pass to her advocate supporting her, including just a ‘?’ on a card to let us know she was uncertain of what was going on.

These types of clients are the vulnerable in our society and have every right whether they or the Official Solicitor is instructing us, to understand what decisions are being made and why.

So “Less is more” as the saying goes.

It may require more effort to use fewer words but in doing so we may be giving more support to those who need it at the most crucial time of their and their children’s lives.

Elizabeth Shaw

37 Park Square Chambers