The lure of the easy road

Today I’m going to talk about a case that posed some interesting conundrums for me. It was one of those cases that I couldn’t decide whether it was an interesting puzzle or just a massive pain. So it’s story time people!

My client was one of those people that are regularly described as ‘difficult’ and with good reason. She was very, very emotional. Every conversation would involve tears and/or angry words (from her, obviously) and me trying to remain professional and extract the useful information from the irrelevant ramblings. Thrown in there were some political views that I’d rather she hadn’t shared. She was also one of those people that thinks their ability to Google is equivalent to my law degree and years of experience. FYI that is not the best way to build a good relationship with a lawyer, in case you were wondering. We do not enjoy that.

The icing on the cake was a tendency to be overly dramatic, comparing her situation (which was admittedly not good) to various tragedies like a bad tabloid journalist. At school, I ran with the ‘drama kids’ and my tolerance for theatrics is higher than most but it was a lot, even for me. It undermined her point most of the time, and made it very difficult to take her seriously.

It’s safe to say she was not my favourite client. There’s a saying “it’s always easier to help the people you like” which sticks with me in situations like this. Because it’s true, it is very easy to fight for someone who you relate with, but expending your energy for someone less pleasant is harder. Especially when that person is not even going to thank you. Which she never did, by the way.

She wanted help with a dispute she was having with her local authority about her assessment and support plan. By the time she came to me, this client had been turned away by a number of solicitors firms and a couple of disability charities’ advice centres. And yes, I’m aware this is a big red flag.

And the thing is, it would have been very easy to dismiss her, like many other people had done before me. After all, she wasn’t doing herself any favours with the way she spoke to people (including me and my colleagues who basically refused to speak to her because she was so rude to them). The way she recounted her tale, it didn’t really sound like she had any kind of case. And that was even though she was missing out some fairly crucial parts of the story (which may feature in a future blog post).

It would have been so easy to tell her there was nothing I could do. So very easy. And no one would have criticised me if I had. Turning her away would have been completely justifiable. Indeed, given her history of making complaints, many lawyers would have declined her case in the interests of self-preservation. Not that this stopped her making a complaint against one of the previous firms she’d approached.

Listening to her, I understand why the social worker said she had been uncooperative and why the issues had arisen. Believe me, I got it.

But underneath it all, she actually had a point. It’s just that no one had really taken the time to properly listen to her. The way she delivered that point wasn’t helpful, and her habit of getting very defensive when questioned was another obstacle. Nevertheless, she was actually raising some important issues. Although it’s certainly not the scenario that any legal professional would want to use as a test case.

The crux of the issue was that all of these “off-putting personality traits” were actually a symptom of her mental illness. And few professionals would refuse to work with a person diagnosed with autism simply because that condition affected their ability to engage in professional assessments. And professionals would make allowances for someone who had emotional outbursts because of confusion caused by dementia. They would adapt their approach. Indeed, they are legally obliged to make adaptations. And there was absolutely no reason why this client wasn’t entitled to the same consideration. The disability discrimination protects her just as much as it protects others.

Yet instead they told her she was abusive and so they were not required to work with her any further. Now she was definitely abrasive, unpleasant and difficult. She raised her voice and talked of legal action a lot. But I never heard her actually be abusive. And the local authority never pointed to anything she had said or done to warrant being termed as ‘abusive’. It was just easier to trigger their ‘unreasonable customer’ policy than to actually take the time to listen to her.

And it had become a bit like kicking a dog until it bit you, and then reporting the dog as dangerous. She wouldn’t thank me for that analogy, but that’s what came to mind. So sorry, but it makes my point. The less they listened to her, the more emotional she got. And the more emotional she was, she was then labelled as abusive.

It came down to a simple lack of empathy. A failure on both sides to think about the other person’s experience and point of view. The only difference was that my client’s diagnosis explained her difficulty with that. The various social care, health care and legal professionals she had encountered couldn’t say the same.

And so, whilst there have been days when I wished I had taken the easy road and not taken on her case, most of the time I am glad that my name won’t be going on her very long list of grievances.

In case it isn’t obvious from the fact I still haven’t identified the authority I used to work for, or the organisation I now work for, the views expressed on this blog are my own opinion and not the opinion of that local authority or organisation.

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