Webinar 'Legal Clinics - a tool to promote disability rights' May 2020

In cooperation with the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL), DRD held a webinar on ‘Legal Clinics - a tool to promote disability rights’ on the 26th of May 2020. This report summarizes the webinar. A recording of the webinar can be watched with subtitles on youtube.

The webinar was opened and moderated by Ola Linder, lawyer and project leader of the project Article 19 as a tool at the Independent Living Institute. He gave a short introduction on legal clinics. Legal clinics are not well established in Sweden but would be a great learning possibility for students and a support of civil society organisations in their work of promoting disability rights.

First speaker was Michael Stein, co-founder and Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, and a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School, USA. He talked about the role of academics in disability rights advocacy. At the Harvard Law School the focus was not primarily on litigation but more on working with civil society towards an implementation of the CRPD. Michael Stein and the law school have intervened in many cases around the world, for example at the European Court of Human Rights, Supreme Courts or Constitutional Courts at the highest national levels. Further they are coordinating and moderating cooperations of different law schools. In their interventions and briefs they highlight linkages between different conventions. At Harvard there are 16 human rights law clinics with different focuses where they are able to shift cases to their relevant experts. In the last years, Michael has been active in defending disability rights against new regulations of the Trump administration.


Anna Bruce, teacher and researcher at Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI) of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Sweden talked about starting the Lund Human Rights Clinic in cooperation with NGOs of persons with disabilities. The RWI, an academic institution with connection to the faculty of law at Lund University, started a legal clinic on human rights last year. It is a research and documentation clinic in cooperation between academia (RWI and Lund University) and civil society organisations (ILI), where students do preparatory work for legal actions that the civil society organization are planning as examples of strategic litigation. Sweden does not have a tradition in legal clinics. According to Anna Bruce, Sweden is quite behind, because legal education is seen as a ‘judge’s education’ and has little focus on argumentation, representation and meeting clients. There is generally little interaction between academia and practice. She pointed out that there is a national delusion that all people in Sweden have equal living conditions, don’t experience human rights abuses, know their rights and have access to courts if they want to. By setting up the clinic and managing different challenges many lessons have been learned. Anna mentioned the importance of set roles, responsibilities, flexibility and a mutual understanding of the responsibility and mandate of the other actor (academia/civil society). Further it is important to anchor the clinic with key actors at the University to avoid misconceptions about legal clinics in academia. With the newly built legal clinic, the ground is laid for future introduction of multidisciplinary clinics, street law and, in time, for the students to work with live clients and take legal actions themselves.


Next spoke José Martocci, Director of the Legal Clinic on Human Rights at the Universidad Nacional de la Plata (UNLP), Argentina. He talked about his experience of collective litigation in Argentina with the legal clinics at the UNLP. His speech was translated into English by Mariela Galeazzi. The UNLP is a public university paid by taxes and has therefore the mandate to provide services beneficial to the community. The legal clinics on human rights and disability rights have been built up since 15 years and have worked on a large variety of cases. In Argentina the CRPD has a status on the same level as the constitution or legal norms. All laws at national level have to conform with the convention. The challenges are seen in the implementation of the social model according to the CRPD in a system that is based on the medical model. Jose Martocci summarized a case supported by the legal clinic that represents this challenge and is connected to article 19 of the CRPD. The Health insurance agency of the province of Buenos Aires did not recognize personal assistance as a health benefit. Personal assistance in the sense of the CRPD and the right to live independently was therefore not available. Instead other services according to the medical model were provided. A class action was taken against the health insurance agency in the name of all citizens of the province to claim the obligation under the CRPD to provide personal assistance. The judge accepted the request for a public hearing and could listen to personal assistance users. The case was decided in favor of the position taken by the claimants supported by the legal clinic and the court ordered the state to provide personal assistance in line with the CRPD. The judge also ordered the state to include disabled people and their organisations in the design of these policies. According to Jose, collective action and litigation are efficient tools to make the state comply with the CRPD.


As a last speaker, Juan Cobeñas, disability rights activist from Argentina and user of Alternative Augmentative Communication - AAC, spoke about his involvement and experience in the case reported by José Martocci. Juan Cobeñas is part of Asociación Azul, an organisation that has been promoting and working for personal assistance and Independent Living for more than 10 years. In his opinion, working with legal clinics is one of the key strategies for advocacy. The organization is cooperating with the Legal Clinic on disability rights at the UNLP, which is interested in the views and ideas of the organisation as an expert in disability rights matters. According to Juan the legal clinic stands behind their philosophy and the principals of the CRPD. The legal clinic does not tell them what to do but shows them the strategies they can use as lawyers, help to write briefs to the government to demand advocacy actions and support them in litigation. Juan Cobeñas and his organisation are promoting personal assistance because it is the key to live independently. Right now, they are waiting for the judgement to come into effect that should provide and secure personal assistance in the terms of the CRPD. According to Juan an important step in this case was the public hearing, where the judge listened to self advocates and saw how personal assistance enables people to live independently. The case was also supported by Catalina Devandas and Facundo Chavez. Juan Cobeñas pointed out that legal clinics need the support from civil society to work and serve more people in the community. He stressed the fact that disabled people themself should take over the leadership and should be in charge and control their legal matters. Strategic litigation should be driven by the interests of people with disabilities and their organisations.


At the end of the webinar there was time for questions and discussion.

We thank all speakers, organizers and participants for this interesting webinar.