The University of Leeds is set to become a world leader in disability law, after setting up a ground-breaking new “hub” of some of the UK’s leading legal scholars.
The Disability Law Hub boasts expertise across equality, social care, mental health, mental capacity and international disability rights law, as well as in the relationship between disability and mainstream UK law.
The hub is closely linked to the university’s pioneering Centre for Disability Studies (CDS), which brings together scholars from a range of academic disciplines across the university, and is led by Professor Anna Lawson (pictured), the disabled law scholar who also heads CDS.
Its position has been strengthened by the decision of two leading experts on disability law, Professor Luke Clements and Professor Oliver Lewis, to join the university’s School of Law as members of the hub.
Clements is an expert on social care law, who has taken a series of landmark discrimination cases to the European Court of Human Rights, while Lewis, as executive director of the Mental Disability Advocacy Centre (MDAC), has worked across Europe and Africa on cases that advance the cause of equality, justice and inclusion for people with mental health issues and learning difficulties.
As part of Lewis’s move, MDAC will move its headquarters from Hungary to Leeds.
The appointments of Clements and Lewis position the new hub as the UK’s leading university on disability law.
Current research being carried out within the hub includes areas such as inclusive education; access to justice, including the barriers faced by women with mental health conditions in the criminal justice system; problems with the Mental Capacity Act, the Care Act and the Equality Act; and independent living.
From September, Clements will head a new disability law clinic, in which students will build up evidence in areas where there is a gap between what the law says should be happening and what is happening to disabled people in reality, with its work “informed by the priorities of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs)”.
The hub will then publish guides to the relevant laws, combined with reports on its findings.
Lawson said this could influence policy-makers, strengthen campaigning, and provide evidence for lawyers to bring “strategic litigation”.
In the 2016-17 academic year, law students working in the clinic will be examining problems with the operation of disabled facilities grants, which provide funding to adapt housing for disabled people; and difficulties experienced by children in accessing mental health services.
The hub is already considering taking a “super complaint” to the Local Government Ombudsman on the problems faced by disabled children in accessing school transport.
The law hub also aims to involve DPOs in a new disability law module for undergraduates, which will be launched in September.
Lawson said: “Our aim is to develop the module in a way that is mutually beneficial –building up legal awareness amongst DPOs, and building up awareness of DPO issues and of disability-related law amongst our students (lawyers of the future).”
Because of the hub, she said, there are now many more staff working on disability law in the university’s School of Law, which means it will be able to take on more PhD students working in this area and “help to build up expertise and capacity for the future”.
Lawson added: “We will also of course be hosting a range of events on disability law and are keen that disabled people and DPOs should actively participate in these.”
Although the disability law hub is based within the law school’s new Centre for Law and Social Justice, all of its members are also part of the university-wide CDS.
There will be close links between the two, including through a new masters qualification in disability studies, which will be launched in September 2017 and will include a disability and human rights module from the law school.
Lawson said: “The CDS will continue to provide a platform for staff and PhD students based in different parts of the university to come together to exchange ideas and explore collaborations in research, teaching and ‘impact activities’ in the disability studies field.”
She said that CDS was “one of the longest-standing and pioneering centres in the field”, and its leadership of the European Union’s Academic Network of European Disability experts (ANED) allowed it to “foster and develop collaborations with other centres”.
She added: “We also have close connections with disability centres elsewhere in the world and are currently exploring opportunities to build on these in east Asia.”
Lord [Colin] Low, the disabled peer who chairs the advisory board of the university’s School of Law, said: “When I taught law at the University of Leeds in the 1970s and early 1980s, I did not imagine that the School of Law would one day establish a Disability Law Hub.
“I am delighted that its scholars have a range and depth of expertise that will be invaluable in closing the gap between the rhetoric of human rights and the lived experiences of disabled people around the world.”
Professor Sir Alan Langlands, the university’s vice-chancellor, said: “For many decades, the university’s Centre for Disability Studies has challenged socially-created barriers that limit the life chances of disabled people.
“The new Disability Law Hub houses the country’s leading group of legal experts in this cutting-edge field.”