Postcard from Mexico

Anna Cody

mexico flag


Experiencing another law school, and particularly another legal clinic using clinical education methodology is always eye opening.   For the last 9 months I have been collaborating with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Human Rights program legal clinic. It has given me some fascinating insights into both the Mexican legal and political system, as well as what it’s like to be a law student in the biggest public university in Latin America.

The clinic here focuses on access to information in migration matters and disability rights cases. They have made over 100 access to information claims with some success but which demonstrate how un-transparent the immigration detention system is.  And as most clients are from Central America and are on their way to the USA, the clients don’t want to stay in Mexico to pursue their legal rights when they are mistreated, tortured or detained illegally. The disability rights cases challenge the automatic use of ‘guardianship’ for many people with disability. They have also supported various people seeking de-institutionalisation. Students are an integral part of these cases, researching them, interviewing and advising clients and representing clients in court. Cases in Mexico are mostly run on the papers without oral evidence, submissions or argument.

Three insights

1. Students, the world over, thrive when given responsibility for their legal work, and are supported in their learning by thorough and effective supervision. The students in Mexico are given a lot of responsibility and in order to succeed in this, they need intensive support from their supervisor who meets with them, drafts documents and discusses some of the pitfalls of the civil system. Writing in plain language is even more of a challenge in Mexico than in Australia where students receive little training in how to communicate effectively.

2.  Despite the various criticisms of Australian ethical frameworks and regulatory system, having some ethical rulings and requirements are definitely preferable to not having any at all. In Mexico there is no ethical code to guide and regulate lawyers. It is a real discussion between supervisor and students about how to influence a judge and whether or not paying bribes is appropriate. The fact that this can be discussed openly is a tribute to both teacher and students. And yet for an Australian lawyer this explicit form of “influencing” by bribe is shocking. It strikes me how hard it is to continue to act in good faith as a lawyer and to believe in a legal system which relies on bribery. This has meant some fascinating discussions with students about what our role is within a legal system as lawyers.

3. When we are working with clients with disability and teaching students about their and our own ableism, it’s essential to design a clinical course with people with disability at the centre. This means integrating speakers, readings, class content which has people with disability giving their perspectives. One of the most powerful classes which the Mexican clinic teaches its clinical students provides perspectives of people with disability, who are not clients. The clinic invites a member of the Colectivo Chuhcan, a collective formed by and for people with psycho-social disability to discuss their experiences of the health and legal system in order to give students an insight into these issues.

These are just 3 of the insights of my time in Mexico, on sabbatical from UNSW.

GAJE conference and the India Supreme Court case re-criminalizing gay sex

The 7th Global Alliance for Justice Education (GAJE) conference currently occurring in Delhi India was inspiring on many levels.  It raised questions about the role of law schools in preparing lawyers who are responsible to their communities, and are ethical and caring people.   It also challenged participants to takehome learnings about how they could personally change the way they teach to create lawyers who care about justice on all its levels.

It was a shame that at the same time as the Indian Supreme court delivered a very conservative judgment re-criminalising gay sex (on Section 377 of the Indian Penal code), that the conference did not take the opportunity to discuss this.  The mainstream newspapers and media outlets were full of discussion about the decision and various commentators explaining what is likely to happen next and the impact on the Lesbian, gay,  bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.  With such a land mark decision at the same time as the conference, it’s disappointing that a group of justice educators did not discuss the decision in a plenary session.  Perhaps it’s indicative of the still challenging nature of discussing any questions relating to gender identity or sexuality in many countries, including in India.  It’s also partially explained because the conference was at Jindal University, about 2 hours out of Delhi with no access for delegates to radio, television or local papers.  It did have excellent Wifi and I’m sure Indian delegates would have been aware of the decision but didn’t raise it for discussion. The opportunity was lost to discuss these issues in an international conference as no doubt there would have been many perspectives and experiences which would have been shared, with the potential for combined action.  It’s encouraging that so many in the mainstream media in India recognized the decision’s significance and saw it as a breach of human rights.

By Anna Cody

Global Alliance for Justice Education Conference – “women’s courts” and clinical legal education

The 7th Global Alliance for Justice Education (GAJE) conference is currently taking place in Delhi India.  GAJE includes teachers in law schools and professional practice teachers from around the world.

One of the most interesting workshops I attended at the conference focused on ‘women’s courts’.  These are a form of dispute resolution system where groups of ‘Dalit’ women sit in groups of 12-14 and decide the disputes which community women bring to them.  The non government organization (NGO) which has promoted this development is called, Vikalp and works in Gujarat state as well as in some of the other states in India.  The women who use the courts bring disputes about family break up, domestic violence, work issues and neighbour disputes to the court.

Clinical legal education students from various law schools in India and the USA have supported the NGO do its work through projects such as developing resources for the NGO. The students then have the amazing opportunity to observe the women’s courts in action, sitting under a tree in the open air, in local communities.   The community women are trained in and practice some basic legal principles and processes, including summoning the person, frequently a husband, to the court.  While the system is outside the formal legal system, both parties attend and the final decisions of the women’s courts carry weight in the local community.

What a great way to teach law and how an informal legal system can be adequate for resolving disputes the way women want them resolved.

By Anna Cody

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