Dr Orla Drummond (Ulster) – The access to justice barriers for tribunal users: a comparative case study on Special Educational Needs Tribunals
The Access to Justice Review (2) identified the difficulties faced by tribunal users in securing access to justice, and poses questions about how tribunal users might be best supported. Recent research from Ulster University’s Law School provides an in-depth examination of the barriers faced by users of Special Educational Needs Tribunals, and, particularly, how the tribunal could be made more accessible for children in light of the international obligation to include children in decision making under Article 12 (2) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This presentation delivers research findings regarding the experiences of tribunal users in Northern Ireland with those in Wales, where the UNCRC has been incorporated into domestic law and where tribunal procedures seek to implement UNCRC obligations. Through qualitative research with parents, children with special educational needs, tribunal staff and judiciary, local authorities/education and library boards, and policy makers, the research findings identify barriers to justice, including: the exclusion from the process of those from poorer backgrounds, with lower confidence, and/or communication skills; a pervasive inequality of legal arms; and difficulty in identifying and accessing support and advice. In relation to children’s participation, findings highlight resistance to their voice being heard within the process, compounded by attitudinal and procedural barriers. In particular, the tribunal process, as experienced by parents, has exacerbated notions of protectionism and the need to shield the child from the process in both Northern Ireland and Wales. This presentation outlines recommendations based on the research findings that concern increasing access to justice and enabling child participation in the future.