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Court Committee Seeks Public Input on Limiting Role of Non-Lawyer Advocates in Special Education

The NJ Supreme Court Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law announced on October 14 that it would provide interested parties the opportunity to comment on its controversial ruling restricting the role of non-lawyer advocates for parents and students in New Jersey special education IEP meetings and mediations. The Committee accepted public comment through November 16.

In addition, the Committee suspended Opinion No. 56, its September 30 ruling imposing limits on the participation of non-lawyers at meetings and mediations involving students with disabilities.  The Opinion held that trained, experienced non-lawyers can assist parents of a student with disabilities in “negotiations” with school districts regarding the student’s Individual Education Program (IEP) but only as long as the non-lawyer does not “represent” the parents or even “speak on their behalf.”

The Committee suspended its ruling to allow for public comment after Education Law Center filed a formal request citing the grave impact on the rights of students with disabilities if Opinion No. 56 was allowed to stand. For over three decades, non-lawyer advocates have accompanied parents to meetings to develop Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) under federal law.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees parents the right to include individuals with knowledge or special expertise regarding their children as members of the IEP team and the discretion to decide which individuals have the requisite knowledge or expertise.

The Committee issued Opinion No. 56 after a confidential grievance was filed by an unknown party about a non-lawyer representing students in special education proceedings before the Office of Administrative Law (OAL).  The Committee, however, used the grievance to examine non-lawyer practices not only at OAL, but also at IEP meetings and mediation conferences.  In its demand letter, ELC objected to the Committee’s issuance of a wide-ranging advisory opinion without soliciting input from parents and parent advocacy organizations.

“There is a very uneven playing field in special education meetings and proceedings and a shortage of free and low-cost legal services available to parents,” said ELC Senior Attorney Elizabeth Athos. “Non-attorney educational consultants – who include advocates — play a critical role in enabling children with disabilities to receive an appropriate education and ensuring that their rights are protected throughout the special education process.”

“Since our founding 32 years ago, SPAN has trained staff and volunteers to support parents at IEP meetings. That sometimes includes ‘speaking on their behalf,’” reflected Diana Autin, Executive Co-Director of the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN). “IEP meetings can be intimidating and overwhelming, especially for parents with limited literacy or English language skills. This Opinion demonstrates a disconcerting lack of understanding of the power imbalance at IEP meetings between parents and schools, and the important role that peers and lay advocates play in leveling the playing field.”

To read the full text of the comments SPAN’s Co-Executive Director Diana Autin provided to the Committee, click here.

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