Developing a legal system responsive to the needs of people with learning disability

Plain English summary

People with learning disabilities have a right to be fully informed about legal issues that are about them. Laws and policies have been put in place to make sure people get the legal help they need but we are not sure if they are working. 

This research is about whether people with learning disabilities fully understand what is happening when they have a legal problem. As part of the study we have talked with 40 people with learning disabilities. We have also talked with lawyers and judges.

When we finish this study we will teach lawyers and judges about how to make sure that people with learning disabilities understand the legal process.

About the research

People with learning disability are recognised through legislation as a group of people who may be disadvantaged in their interactions with the New Zealand legal system. Legislation such as the Protection of Personal and Property Rights Act (1988) and the Intellectual Disability (Compulsory Care and Rehabilitation) Act (2003) has been used to address the legal needs of people with learning disability. Such legislation, along with the New Zealand Disability Strategy and New Zealand’s status as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Person’s with Disabilities would suggest this country is relatively advanced with regard to policy and practice in the area of learning disability. Unfortunately however, New Zealand adults continue to find it difficult to exercise their human rights and can experience difficulty accessing the legal system.

In 2011 DBI researchers Dr Brigit Mirfin-Veitch and Sue Gates, together with Professor Mark Henaghan (University of Otago) and Associate Professor Kate Diesfeld (AUT University) conducted a consultation project funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation. The consultation was designed to provide an informed assessment of the need for further research that is focused on the education and disability awareness of legal professionals, and has the potential to improve legal support and services to people with intellectual (learning) disability. The views and perspectives of judges, lawyers and disability sector representatives were sought. All three groups agreed that people with learning disability frequently experience disadvantage within the legal system due to difficulties in recognising learning disability and its likely impact. This consultation project revealed the problematic experiences of people with learning disabilities in the legal system and provided evidence of the challenges that both they, and legal professionals face.

In 2012 the New Zealand Law Foundation again invested in this important area of research by funding a 2-year research project designed to generate findings that have the potential to contribute to the development of a more responsive legal system for people with learning disability. To date over 40 individuals with intellectual disabilities have shared their legal experiences with members of the research team. Participants have a range of legal experiences and have been involved across the range of court jurisdictions. New Zealand lawyers and judges have also been interviewed about their experiences of working with, or making legal decisions about people with learning disabilities. Research findings will be discussed with reference to Article 12 (Equal recognition before the law) and Article 13 (Access to justice) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The research findings will be translated into practice through the development of educational resources for people with learning disability themselves, lawyers and judges. These will be disseminated in a variety of ways including through regional seminars and workshops and via a specially developed website.

The research is planned for completion in June 2014.

Dissemination of research findings

  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited delegate, Asia Europe Federation to 16th Annual Informal Asia –Europe Seminar on Human Rights and people with disability, Beijing, China, November 8-10, 2016.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited guest lecturer, Chinese University of Law and Politics, Beijing, China, 7 November 2016. (Topic - Disability Research).
  • Black, A., & Mirfin-Veitch, B. (2016, November). Why bother with accessibility [Powerpoint Slides]? Presentation at the meeting of Clairty2016, Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. (2016, November). Learning from experience: A pragmatic approach to transforming legal practice. Presentation at the meeting of ASID New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited speaker, Institute of Judicial Studies Seminar on “Communication in the Courtroom”, Auckland, 30 September, 2016.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Diesfeld, K. Gates, S. Henaghan, M. (2014). Developing a more responsive legal system for people with intellectual disability in New Zealand. Dunedin: Donald Beasley Institute.
  • “I just think you need a really good lawyer”: Adults with intellectual disabilities and their experiences in the New Zealand legal system. Australasian ASID Conference, Sydney, November 2013. 

Mirfin-Veitch. Deakin University

  • “Voices of the Vulnerable". New Zealand Law Society Family Law Conference, November 2013. 
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited speaker Joint Ministry of Health, National Intellectual Disability Care Provider Forums, People with Intellectual Disability and the legal system, 2015. Dunedin, Christchurch and Hamilton.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited speaker to New Zealand Youth Advocates Conference. Facilitating positive communication with young disabled people (with Dr Emily Henderson). Auckland, July 2015.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited speaker to Institute of Judicial Studies Communication in the Courtroom 2-day seminar. Communication with people with cognitive challenges (with Professor Kate Diesfeld). Auckland, June 2015.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited interview for Otago Daily Times. Disabled face risks in courts (with Professor Mark Henaghan), June 27, 2015.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited speaker, Dunedin People First monthly meeting: Developing a more responsive legal system for people with learning disability, May 2015.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited Keynote Speaker, Court Liaison Nurse National Conference. Developing a more responsive legal system for people with intellectual disability in New Zealand. Dunedin, May 2015. (xi) Invited webinar presenter, Continuing Legal Education – New Zealand Law Society; Criminal Law – Working with intellectually disabled clients (with Mr David Allan), March 2015.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited interview by Kathryn Ryan, National Radio 9 to Noon show, on Developing a more responsive legal system for people with intellectual disability in New Zealand. (With Professor Mark Henaghan). 25 February 2015.
  • Mirfin-Veitch, B. Invited speaker to Ministry of Justice Seminar Series, With Professor Kate Diesfeld (AUT). Voices of the Vulnerable: People with Intellectual Disability in New Zealand Justice System. November 2014.