The research project, called Access to Justice for Children with Mental Disabilities, was designed to address a large gap in this area with the goal of improving public policies on the national and European levels.
The expression "children with mental disability" is used in the project to refer to boys and girls with intellectual, developmental, cognitive and/or psychosocial disabilities. Starting with the fact that this group is at a higher risk of suffering serious violations of human rights, the researchers analyzed the problems these children face when recurring to the justice system. "We have seen that there is an alarming lack of data in this context and that they face special challenges in accessing justice under the same conditions as other citizens because, among other reasons, professionals lack the training to be able to compensate for these challenges," said one of the authors and coordinator of the study, Ignacio Campoy, from the UC3M Department of International Law, Ecclesiastical Law and Philosophy of Law.
"The same patterns are practically repeated in the ten countries that comprise this European project," said, Silvina Ribotta, another of the authors and professor of Philosophy of Law at the UC3M. The research project has been going for two years in Bulgaria, Slovenia, Spain, Ireland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and Romania. It is a multidisciplinary project, with scholars from the field of human rights and social work participating alongside activists and researchers from NGOs.
Some of the main barriers identified were the very attitudes of judicial authorities, lawyers and other professionals such as policemen, social workers and directors of social assistance centers. "It is observed that in many countries, discriminatory attitudes were the general norm, which reflected prejudices against children with disabilities and their opportunity to take part in legal proceedings," said another of the study's authors, Patricia Cuenca, from the "Bartolomé de las Casas" Human Rights Institute.
Recommendations, indicators and didactic materials
A series of reports, guides and materials has been created out of the European project. The public can consult some of the main results of the study in this literature through the web page of the Mental Disability Advocacy Centre: http://www.mdac.org/en/accessing-justice-children. Most of the results are in the languages of the different countries that took part in the project.
In this regard, a set of recommendations is presented so that these children significantly improve in all spheres of civil, criminal and administrative justice. Among these recommendations are the following: implement systems for compiling and publishing data itemized by age and type of disability in the judicial system; create tools so that children involved in legal processes are guaranteed effective participation in them; and create performance indicators to evaluate mentally disabled children's right of access to justice in national justice systems.
Also, legal professionals who work with mentally-disabled children, such as judges, police officers, social workers and psychologists, can access didactic and educational materials.
"The courts need to be more open, flexible and responsive for children with disabilities and other vulnerable groups in our societies", concluded Professor Campoy.