The New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law has announced it will allow for public comment on the Committee’s controversial ruling restricting the role of non-lawyer advocates for parents and students in special education conferences. The Committee will receive comments through November 16 at Comments.Mailbox@njcourts.gov.
The Committee has also suspended Opinion No. 56, the 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 “speak on their behalf.”
The Committee’s suspension of Opinion No. 56 to allow for public comment came after Education Law Center filed a formal request citing the grave impact on the rights of students with disabilities if the ruling were allowed to stand. For over three decades, non-lawyer advocates have accompanied parents to IEP meetings under federal law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees parents the right to include individuals with knowledge or training regarding children with disabilities as members of the IEP team and to decide which individuals have the requisite knowledge or training.
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. The Committee examined non-lawyer practices not only before the OAL, but also at IEP meetings and mediation conferences with school districts. 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.
“The playing field in special education proceedings is often uneven, and there is a chronic 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 their rights are protected throughout the special education process. Negative reaction to Opinion No. 56 has been strong among parents and parent-side organizations.”
“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,’” said 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.”
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