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.
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.