Professor Luke Clements is Cerebra Professor of Law and Social Justice at the School of Law, Leeds University. He explains how he became involved in research and what he hopes to achieve.
“I came to academic research relatively late in my career. Initially I was a full time practising solicitor specialising in what is known as ‘public law’: claims against public bodies.
I realised however that winning cases did not necessary make public bodies change the way they behaved: quite often it made them more defensive. Only a few people were able to take court cases as legal aid was often difficult to obtain. Even with support, challenging public bodies can be a dispiriting, exhausting and intimidating experience.
This realisation is why I became involved in research. I was fortunate to get a post at Warwick University, then at Cardiff and I am now at Leeds. For the last 20 years my research focus has concerned the law relating to the social care rights of disabled people and their carers. During this period it has been accepted that social care law needed to be made more accessible. This has recently resulted in reform legislation in England and Wales – for which I acted as the special adviser to the Westminster Parliament.
Streamlining the law is welcome but in itself insufficient to enable all disabled people and their carers to access their entitlements. Public bodies face many competing demands and this can pose enormous problems for individuals with limited resources who are not familiar with the system. What is needed are mechanisms that help families overcome these barriers.
Cerebra had also recognised this important need and in 2013 I was honoured to be awarded a Cerebra Research Chair to take this work forward.
Our programme, known as the ‘Legal Entitlements and Problem-Solving (LEaP) Project’ has two intertwined elements – both involving a high level of collaboration between the University and the Cerebra in-house research team.
The first element is a practical legal advice scheme for families who are having difficulty accessing health, social care or other support services. Requests are received and assessed by Cerebra staff and those cases which meet our eligibility criteria are referred to the Project Team for consideration.
In the second element of the LEaP Project we analyse the information generated by the legal advice scheme to help identify commonly occurring problems and practical mechanisms that can help families overcome these. This research takes us in many directions. One of these involves the use of ‘pro bono students’ to prepare reports on specific ‘commonly occurring’ themes and another concerns expert input from our Family Research Ambassadors.
Pro bono Student support
Universities have many excellent resources – not least their students. With the cutbacks in legal aid and other advice agencies, many Law Schools are developing ‘law clinics’ that try to address these difficulties. Cardiff Law School (where the research centre was formerly based) and Leeds have two exceptional pro bono law student programmes (pro bono is the fancy legal term for ‘free’!).
In the past few years our students have provided legal opinions on a wide variety of issues of central concern to families and these are published in the Digest of Opinions. This aspect of the programme is now focussing on systemic problems identified by the LEaP legal advice work (above). Most recently this resulted in a report on the quality of ‘short breaks’ support in England and in the coming years we plan to research difficulties obtaining ‘Disabled Facilities Grants’, problems with school transport arrangements and the delay many families experience in obtaining a diagnosis when it is suspected their child may have autism or similar impairment. This work feeds into our underpinning research (below) and also identifies areas where there is a need for an advice guide.
Family Research Ambassadors (FRA) Scheme
To understand ‘what works’ in relation to ‘problem solving’, families of disabled children are the best people to ask. Many have become experts in navigating the bureaucratic maze and scaling the administrative hurdles. The FRA Scheme (first developed by our Cerebra Chair colleague Professor Richard Hastings at Warwick) brings together such experts by experience and with their help develops ‘problem solving’ tools (such as the ‘Toolkit‘). The FRA members then disseminate the problem-solving expertise through regional training programmes, seminars, presentations etc.
We have just completed a very successful FRA scheme in the Bristol / South Wales region and with Cerebra we are seeking additional external funding to develop similar schemes in every region of the UK – so if you are able to help with this in any way – please let us know.
The underpinning research
Underpinning all these activities, the research at Leeds seeks to:
- identify the key factors that build resilience – enabling families to continue until they have obtained the support they and their children need
- identify the most effective mechanisms for resolving commonly occurring problems.
As part of his PhD research, my colleague Derek Tilley is undertaking empirical research on this question: pulling together the relevant data and experiences of the advice, pro bono and FRA programmes.
This is the most exciting, engaging and practical research with which I have been involved. It is research that is having a direct effect – improving the lives of many families and also, through a constructive dialogue with the hard pressed public bodies, making significant changes to their practices”.