Learning Difficulties, Disadvantage and Family Law


A new study looks at the experience of solicitors representing adults with learning difficulties in care proceedings. The study relates to UK proceedings (in case there’s any confusion about the author of the article being based in Australia).

Read the article: Parents with learning disabilities: Solicitors critical of assumptions and prejudice in the system

We won’t repeat the article but recommend you read it and we’ll move on to matters relating to litigants-in-person with specific learning difficulties in private family law proceedings.

Whether represented or not, at times judges and other professionals misinterpret the needs and evidence of adults with specific learning difficulties. The stress of proceedings can impact on the parent’s coping strategies. Halting or odd patterns of speech brought on by stress can be viewed as their being disingenuous, as can a poor ability to recollect events in a chronological order (these are just two examples of how a litigant with a specific learning difficulty can be affected). In the worst case, we’re aware of the litigant being ridiculed for this in court.

Glossy paper, the use of italics, underlining, hand written evidence, complex fonts, justified text, double spacing at the end of sentences and long paragraphs can cause these parents particular problems. Reasonable adjustments will be required, but the litigant may be hesitant to ask for these for a number of reasons:

  • they underestimate the impact of stress affecting them,
  • due to embarrassment,
  • a fear that admitting it may in some way count against them.

There are 1,625,000 dyslexic adults in the UK, and having a specific learning difficulty in no way implies an inability to be a good and highly capable parent. Nor does it imply stupidity. Richard Branson and Bill Gates are among two of the more famous people with a specific learning difficulty… so too was Thomas Edison.

Assumptions easily get made about parents’ abilities. These assumptions can cause harm when professionals downplay or dismiss the impact of specific learning difficulties during proceedings. A parent having a degree or holding down a technical/professional job doesn’t mean they won’t face disadvantage in court. Stress may also make day-to-day coping strategies less effective. What parent isn’t stressed in court?

Time spent talking to the litigant can uncover that, while they got a first at university, all course work was provided on matt and coloured paper, and non-serif style fonts were avoided. The use of underlining and italics was also avoided as it made comprehension very difficult. As ever, a little investigation is required, as is planning what support and making sure the court is asked to make reasonable adjustments. Don’t expect the judge to be an expert in what will help. Ask the litigant, and we provide a checklist of reasonable adjustments which we hope helps with this.

Parents affected by specific learning difficulties need to make clear their needs when applying to the court (or attending as a respondent), and should be encouraged to do so. In fairness to the court, if the judge doesn’t know that the litigant needs reasonable adjustments, he or she won’t make them.

We hope the following resources help, and they’re free.

Dyslexia and the Family Court
Dyslexia Free Pack (this includes a hard copy of our online guide and our reasonable adjustment checklist)

A general note for writers, and one I’ve had to remind myself today, is to avoid justifying text, avoid italics, avoid double spacing at the end of sentences, and avoid underlining. I’ve had to go back over a couple of recent blog posts and reformat, and my apologies for the slip. Let’s not make life harder for people who need our help. I’ll try to keep to shorter paragraphs too!