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I am a Partner in the Public Law and Human Rights Department at Irwin Mitchell and head up our national Education Law team.
I specialise in education law, community care and healthcare (including medical treatment) and Court of Protection. I have a particular interest in cases involving the rights of children and young people with disabilities.
My education law practice includes acting for parents in appeals to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal and judicial reviews on a range of public law issues such as school closure, transport, failure to provide education and wider policy challenges. I also advise schools and colleges in relation to a broad range of legal issues including duties under the Equality Act, admissions and exclusions, funding and governance and challenges against local authorities’ decision-making.
In the Court of Protection, I am experienced in representing individuals who lack capacity where there are disputes about best interests, often on instruction of the Official Solicitor or an independent mental capacity advocate (“IMCA”). I have acted in a number of reported cases in relation to deprivation of liberty and breaches of human rights including cases which involve cross border issues with other legal jurisdictions such as Scotland.
In September 2015 I was appointed as a member of the Law Society’s Mental Health and Disability Committee and I am a contributing author to the LAG publication “Disabled Children: A legal Handbook” (2nd edition) co-writing both the remedies and education law chapters.
I was named Solicitor of the Year at the Bristol Law Society Awards in 2014 and was a shortlisted finalist at the National Law Society Excellence Awards in 2015. I was also named Assistant/Associate Solicitor of the Year in the Birmingham Law Society Awards in 2011 and was a shortlisted finalist at the 2009 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards.
"Polly's experience in this area shone through from the start. She is tenacious and we know we are in very safe hands with her and her team." - Chambers & Partners, 2019
"Her commitment to protecting the rights of disabled children and adults is obvious. She works 24/7 to get the right outcome and is not afraid to take on complicated and challenging cases, providing a clear voice in the often chaotic world of SEN and public law." - Chambers & Partners, 2017
According to market sources she "is a metronome of dynamic physical and mental energy - there is nothing she does not know the answer to. Or if not, she will find out and develop a strategy to deal with the most complex and difficult cases. She is what we all aspire to." - Chambers & Partners, 2016
Polly "commands huge respect in management of Court of Protection cases and her contributions to the law" - Legal 500, 2017
Polly Sweeney is an "amazingly talented claimant lawyer" - Legal 500, 2016
Polly is "exceptional" and displays "outstanding client care skills" - Legal 500, 2014
“The issue of how children with a range of complex special educational needs are supported and kept safe in schools is of growing concern with legal challenges around restraint and seclusion also being investigated in Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
“The families who have asked us to investigate this challenge have done so on behalf of all disabled children as they believe the government is failing in its duty to our most vulnerable children, resulting in practices within some schools that can result in distress and injury.
“The first-hand accounts we have had heard from parents about some of the measures used to restrain their children are extremely worrying. This is why we are now looking into these concerns, and to challenge the lack of a clear legal framework for restraint and seclusion in schools.”
“It is really exciting to be joining Irwin Mitchell, with the firm’s recent successes and cases highlighting the hugely important work it undertakes in the field of Education Law.
“I’m already enjoying getting to know the existing team in Manchester and am looking forward to further developing the education law team in our northern offices, as well as ensuring that our clients can get their voices heard on a host of important matters.”
We are delighted with this outcome and pleased that the Upper Tribunal has recognised in strong terms that the profound and severe discriminatory impact that these rules have on vulnerable children such as L when accessing education is unlawful.
“As has been made clear in the judgment, this decision does not mean that schools are prevented from excluding children where it is necessary and proportionate to do so. However, it will ensure all disabled children are afforded the same safeguards, protections and rights under the law regardless of whether their disability gives rise to challenging behaviour.
L’s parents’ strength and determination in pursuing this appeal on behalf of so many children is admirable and were it not for their tenacity and courage, we would not have the decision we have.
“We also wish to take the opportunity to thank both the National Autistic Society which provided important evidence to the Tribunal as an interested party and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, without whose funding this appeal could not have been brought.”
This appeal is about the fundamental right of access to education for disabled children whose conditions, like autism, result in behaviours which can be physically aggressive.
“The legal definition of ‘physically abusive’ has been stretched to the point that it means disabled children even as young as six or seven who may have only displayed low level physical aggression on a handful of occasions, or even just once if the physical aggression was significant, are denied protection from discrimination under the law. The impact of disabled children being excluded from schools, not just on the child and its family, but on the wider society, is serious and far reaching. We know that children who are excluded from school are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system, and less likely to enter into employment and training.
“We do not believe this was Parliament or even the Government’s intention when the current rule was introduced and we will be asking the Tribunal to find that the way the rule has been interpreted so far breaches our client’s human rights.
“It is important to make clear that this finding would not mean that schools are prevented from excluding children where it is necessary and proportionate to do so. However, it would ensure that all disabled children are afforded the same safeguards, protections and rights under the law regardless of whether their disability gives rise to challenging behaviour.”
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