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Access to justice for persons with disabilities: From international principles to practice

Dr Julinda Beqiraj , Dr Lawrence McNamara

Approximately one billion people, or 15 per cent of the global population, experience some form of disability. Persons with disabilities face disproportionate socio-economic marginalisation, resulting in poorer health and medical treatment, lower quality of education, limited employment prospects and generally broad-ranging restrictions on their community participation. These negative outcomes are exacerbated by barriers to access to justice specifically experienced by persons with disabilities.

Disability is both a cause and consequence of poverty, and effective access to justice is among the essential ingredients of sustainable development and eradication of poverty. Access to justice, as a fundamental right in itself and as a precondition of the enjoyment of all other rights, is especially crucial for this category of vulnerable persons, and provides a unique tool to counter the discrimination (and often disrespect, lack of dignity or even violence) that they face. Paradoxically, however, those who need effective access to justice most are the ones most frequently encountering barriers to it.

The conceptual framework of this report draws on human rights law - particularly (but not only) on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) - and on law and economic development theories as they relate to disability issues. The report thus relies on the definition of 'persons with disabilities' adopted in the CRPD, which promotes a shift away from a purely medical model of disability to one that includes social realities. The concept includes: '[t]hose who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others'. 

The report pursues three complementary aims, which are to: 

  • identify barriers to access to justice for persons with disabilities; 
  • gather examples of solutions used to overcome those barriers; and  
  • provide insight into how examples of good practice may be transferable internationally to inform access to justice practices. 

The report explores how a rights-based approach grounded in effective access to justice could help ensure that justice policy, planning and implementation takes appropriate account of the input and needs of persons with disabilities. It aims to contribute to this by analysing the main legal issues and practices that operate as barriers to access to justice for persons with disabilities, and highlighting possible solutions in various jurisdictions around the world. 

The report is part of a research project commissioned by the International Bar Association (IBA) Access to Justice and Legal Aid Committee ('the Committee') and adds to previous research undertaken by the Committee on barriers to achieving access to justice and solutions thereto.

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