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Clifford Chance and National Autistic Society helps 170 families through a 20-year partnership

4 December 2020

Clifford Chance and National Autistic Society helps 170 families through a 20-year partnership

Leading international law firm Clifford Chance and the National Autistic Society's Education Rights Service yesterday celebrated the 20th anniversary of their partnership. The alliance has helped 170 families directly by representing them at education tribunals, and many more indirectly through test cases and by providing information, advice and guidance.

The milestone was marked by a virtual event yesterday, which was attended by a number of the families, and Clifford Chance and National Autistic Society volunteers and staff.

Around 1 in 100 children are on the autism spectrum. Over 70% of autistic children are in mainstream school and many of them rely on extra support. And others need more extensive support in a specialist school. But far too many families face long and stressful battles to get this support, with children sometimes spending many months or even years out of education, and rely on advice and help from organisations like the National Autistic Society and its Education Rights Service. The service has helped 37,000 families since it was established in 2000.

Government figures show that the number of appeals to the SEND tribunal increased by 23% last year, and nearly half of appeals were for a child on the autism spectrum.

Clifford Chance's partnership with the National Autistic Society launched in 2000 to provide free representation to families facing exceptional circumstances or whose cases were so complex that they would struggle to represent their children’s cases on their own.

Clifford Chance provides free legal representation to help parents of autistic children seeking to challenge decisions by local education authorities in England about their educational needs and provisions. Clifford Chance's lawyers work closely with the charity and parents in preparing appeals to the First-Tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability) and representing parents at the hearings. Since the beginning of the partnership, approximately 340 Clifford Chance lawyers have provided pro-bono support in 170 cases, 86% of which reached a positive outcome.

Clifford Chance's partnership with the National Autistic Society has expanded significantly in recent years. The Clifford Chance Foundation provides financial support to the charity to produce expert reports. The Foundation is also funding an upcoming National Autistic Society report on the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities system, which will look at the difficulties in getting the right support, professionals’ understanding of autism and the variety of support on offer.

Marie Berard, partner at Clifford Chance, said:" We are immensely proud of our partnership with the National Autistic Society. Over the past 20 years, 340 of our lawyers and trainees have dedicated thousands of pro-bono hours to help 170 families in need who were fighting to receive the right educational provisions for their children. We get a huge sense of reward seeing the tangible difference we are making (our success rate is 86%) and our lawyers get to hone their litigators' skills in the process."

Caroline Stevens, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society, said: “We couldn’t be prouder of the impact of the 20-year partnership between our Education Rights Service and Clifford Chance. It’s directly helped transform the lives of over 170 autistic children and families and indirectly helped countless more through test cases and by providing information, advice and guidance.

“Autism is a lifelong disability and affects how you communicate and interact with the world. If you’re autistic, the right school environment, support and understanding is absolutely essential. Get that wrong and it can be almost impossible to learn. But that’s the situation that too many autistic children find themselves in.

“Families end up having to fight - sometimes in court - just to get their son or daughter into the right school or for a little support. This is gruelling, especially on top of the often-unbearable pressures families already face. And many simply don’t have the resources to take this on and are desperate for advice and support.

“This underlines why our partnership with Clifford Chance is just as important today as it was 20 years ago. Thank you to everyone in the team for their generous pro-bono support and expertise, and to all our volunteers for their time and commitment, and all they do for the families we support. You’re all extraordinary.”

Stephanie Lee’s autistic son Freddie is 12 and doing really well at a specialist residential school for autistic children and young people. But it took a long, exhausting battle and taking her local authority to tribunal to get him there.

Stephanie said: “By the time Freddie got his autism diagnosis, he’d been excluded nearly 20 times. Mainstream school just wasn’t in the right environment for him. He was deeply unhappy, he’d even stopped smiling.

“The local authority wanted Freddie in a pupil referral unit or a SEMH (social, emotional and mental health) school. But I knew this wasn’t right for him. Luckily, I found the National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service who helped me to arrange Freddie’s Education, Health and Care plan. I then found a school. But when I approached the local authority and showed them the prospectus and I was told that the local authority does not provide a ‘gold service’!

"The case went to tribunal and the National Autistic Society arranged for Clifford Chance to represent me. With their support, I felt that I finally had a voice, that I wasn’t a bad mum. I wasn’t alone anymore and I knew I could fight.

"The Tribunal was successful and in September 2018 Freddie started his new school. ‘I just want to learn,’ Freddie said to me. I could not be any prouder. Freddie is a very popular boy who is loved by all. He is achieving all goals set.

“I can honestly say hand-on-heart that if it was not for the Education Rights Service and Clifford Chance Freddie would not have been where he is today. A happy 12-year-old enjoying school and being with his friends. Priceless.”

Partnering with not-for-profit and business clients is a longstanding, central part of Clifford Chance's community and pro bono strategy, and the Firm is committed to developing relationships with the world's leading NGOs both locally and internationally. For more information on Clifford Chance's pro bono initiatives and the latest version of the Responsible Business report, please visit:

Notes to Editors:

The National Autistic Society and the Education Rights Service

  • The National Autistic Society is the UK’s leading charity for autistic people.
  • We are here to transform lives, change attitudes and create a society that works for autistic people.
  • Since 1962, we have been campaigning for autistic people’s rights and providing support and advice to autistic people and their families.
  • Our Education Rights Service helps families get the right educational provision for their children, by providing accurate information, quality support and advice on special educational needs provision and entitlements. The Service also offers specific support and advice on preparing appeals to education tribunals.
  • To find out more about autism or the charity, visit
  • Follow the National Autistic Society on Twitter @Autism or Facebook.

What is autism?

  • Autism is a lifelong disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.
  • There are around 700,000 autistic children and adults in the UK.
  • Autism is a spectrum. This means autistic people have their own strengths and face varying challenges. Some autistic children and adults need 24-hour care and support. Others simply need clearer communication and a little longer to do things at work or school. 
  • Although everyone is different, people on the autism spectrum may:
    • Feel intense anxiety about change or unexpected events
    • Be under or oversensitive to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours
    • Need time to process information, like questions or instructions 
    • Face high levels of anxiety in social situations
    • Have difficulties communicating and interacting with others
  • Without the right support or understanding, autistic people can miss out on an education, struggle to find work and become extremely isolated.