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19 June 2019

Rethinking our legal education for frontline care workers: Mencap

Kari Gerstheimer
Kari Gerstheimer, Head of Information and Advice at Mencap, explains how redesigning their legal education training for care workers has led to an increase in managers referring cases to them for legal advice.
Strengthening Civil Society

Mencap are running a Legal Network project to connect our legal expertise to other learning disability organisations. There are three strands to our strategy:

  • legal education for frontline care managers and advice professionals to help them identify legal issues and seek help
  • early legal help to challenge unlawful behaviour
  • using data and legal expertise to challenge unlawful decision-making and policy.

This third strand will be supported by our recent grant from the Baring Foundation.

At the start of the project, we knew that:

  • care managers don’t have good knowledge about the law
  • care managers are stressed and don’t have a lot of time
  • we would need to deliver the training remotely as we didn’t have enough time or resources to deliver the training face to face.

So, we designed a legal education programme that could be delivered via skype. We focussed on trying to communicate the key duties on local authorities and used case studies to try to make the scenarios familiar. We encouraged participants to talk about their experiences. We were pleased that the managers seemed engaged and shared lots of relevant stories, but after the sessions we found that managers were simply not referring cases on to us or asking for help to solve the problems they had discussed in the training sessions.

We held a design-thinking workshop to capture learning and to seek to co-produce new learning materials to improve our sessions. What we discovered was that:

  • managers are overwhelmed by the problems in the social care system and feel like there is very little they can do to change things. Things have been so bad for so long that unlawful decision making has become normalised
  • managers do not trust lawyers, and are protective of the people that they work with
  • managers are so busy that they don’t have the bandwidth to take on anything else: they were scared that if they picked up the phone to us it would create more work
  • managers feel very guilty, and after our training were left feeling awful – that they were somehow responsible for being complicit in the public body decision-making that we brought their attention to during the training.

As a result of this workshop, we have changed our approach completely:

  • we have rebranded our sessions to “advice sessions” and taken out any reference to the law or to our team being lawyers
  • we use language that is recognisable to frontline care workers. So, for example, instead of talking about “unlawful behaviour and duties”; we talk about “symptom checkers” which are tools regularly used in care homes
  • we acknowledge all of those feelings that managers have right at the outset to help build trust
  • we are more inspiring – we talk about how, if we work together we can change social care for the better
  • we focus on how we can be a time-saving device and how we can provide solutions, and we use the voices of the managers that we have already worked with to speak about the outcomes we have achieved for the people that they support.

We have found that this approach has led to an uplift in referrals. Managers feel more inspired to be part of a movement that can bring about change. They trust us more. Once we have built up trust in this way, and once we have buy-in that advice and support can be a lever for change, then we can start to do some of the more technical legal education.