Monday, 9 June 2014

The Family Law Nightmare for Dyslexic Parents

A recent blog by Lucy Reed of Pink Tape  highlighted that, even for the legal profession, the length and complexity of court paperwork can be a frustration.1

Imagine how difficult things become for a parent with dyslexia, when faced with a 24 page application form or being presented with a 350 page court bundle.

We've helped a fair number of parents with dyslexia. Common problems include form filling and reading documentation related to proceedings (statements, CAFCASS reports, directions, orders, skeleton arguments, case law and the list goes on...). Also, communication difficulties which become exacerbated when the parent is placed under stress, and let's be honest, you can't get much more stressful than a court appearance when your relationship with your child is in the balance. 

One father we knew had this habit of saying 'do you understand what I mean' whenever he attempted to explain things and became stressed. For him, his disability affected recollection of the sequence of events, and long, oral questions confused him, so he'd ask the barrister to repeat them. The court interpreted this as his being disingenuous, and sadly, he was ridiculed for his 'odd manner of answering questions'. The assumption was that dyslexia only affects how someone digests written information. The assumption was wrong, and the odd response was the surfacing of a coping mechanism mixed with embarrassment and confusion.

Problems are compounded by the court and professionals involved assuming the parent will have no difficulties if they hold qualifications and responsible jobs (as that father did). Another court downplayed the young father's disability because he had a degree. The father didn't articulate that throughout his degree course, documentation was provided in a specialised format, he had text to speech software he could use, and a rather clever "reading pen" which scanned text and converted it to the spoken word. He struggled with underlined text, handwritten text or italics, or documents printed on plain white paper. All of his study materials had been printed on blue, matt paper. 

In our experience, the parent sometimes dismisses their disability without realising the extent of how stress will affect them during proceedings. How could they know? Court and the court experience is beyond many people's experience. Coping strategies and tools used in day-to-day life or for education may not be available during proceedings (such as those used by the father in the above example). At the time such things are needed, the comment 'you should have asked earlier' is counter-intuitive as the litigant is unaware of how they will react to the unnatural stresses of court until there.

Speaking to these parents, we've learned what helps and what hinders. We've also had input from a psychologist friend who has profound dyslexia. Sadly, we can't trim down court forms, or help everyone. We can, and have, compiled a suggested list of reasonable adjustments which the litigant-in-person or represented parent's solicitor can append to the C100 (or other) court form, which reminds the court of their obligations, and includes a list of adjustments which may help parents with specific learning difficulties, and help the court to ensure it meets its Equality Act responsibilities.

Again, asking someone without experience of court what reasonable adjustments will help them can sometimes produce confusion, whereas providing a list of possible adjustments is a practical starting point.

In addition, our guide to dyslexia and the court can be read as part of our standard 'app' or comes as part of a download pack (together with our suggested reasonable adjustments list). We've now made sure that the links to these guides are prominently displayed on our Resolving Disputes Menu.

Click to open
In our guides (whether onscreen or download versions), we've sought to use dyslexia friendly fonts, avoid underlining and italic script, and also chosen a platform for our family law app which is compatible with text to voice software (the platform used adheres to the WAI-ARIA web accessibility initiative). Our white on black/blue text was deliberately chosen after testing various style sheets on associates with dyslexia to find which was easiest to read (our thanks for their patience and feedback).

Sadly, internet software's love of underlining hyperlinks continues to be a frustration for us and we're moving away from hyperlink text to link buttons to make content even more accessible.

To those in the legal profession, whether qualified or lay advisers, 10% of your clients will be affected by dyslexia. We all need to be active in asking whether clients have dyslexia, whether they use any tools to assist them in their day-to-day life (or historically during study), and how stress affects their coping strategies. We recommend taking them through our 'Reasonable Adjustments' document, and make use of it to identify reasonable adjustments which will help reduce the risk of their disability causing them disadvantage in court. The risks are too great to ignore how dyslexia might affect them, and at a contested hearing, it may be too late to suddenly raise that there's a problem (albeit in an ideal world, there shouldn't be!).

Please familiarise yourself with our guide, which references documents which set out the court's responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010. Don't be 'fobbed off' on costs grounds or because making adjustments is inconvenient. Educate those around you so they are aware that even the brilliant, qualified and successful may struggle to read a simple, hand written document or answer a lengthy question under cross-examination. If you think our guides can be made more accessible... please let us know!

Our Dyslexia and Court Pack and Guide are free.

1. A Jarnyced View. Pink Tape [29 May 2014]