On 22 November 2014, the Oxford Law Faculty and Wadham College organised the Herbert Smith Freehills Oxford Disability Mooting Championship final at the Keble College Chapel. The moot marked a first in its exclusive focus on legal issues concerning persons with disabilities and it gave students the opportunity to reflect upon the challenges in interpreting general laws in the context of disability.
The formidable panel of judges included Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers KG PC, former President of the UK Supreme Court, Professor Timothy Endicott, Dean of the Oxford Law Faculty, Ms Helen Mountfield QC of Matrix Chambers, and Mr Ian Gatt QC, Head of the Advocacy Group at Herbert Smith Freehills. After a fierce final round, the moot was won by the team of Conor Kennedy and Stuart Sanders of Trinity College. This year’s Championship problem question examined tort law and civil justice issues relating to damages for disabled claimants. The event was generously supported by Herbert Smith Freehills, in association with their disability network, Ability which seeks to reflect and represent the diversity in people’s experiences of disabilities.
The moot was followed by a discussion on ‘Building on the 2012 Paralympic Legacy: Social Attitudes, Equality Law and Participation in Public Life’ which was chaired by Lord Macdonald QC. Mr Stephen Frost, the former Head of Diversity and Inclusion for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, spoke of the historic efforts in co-jointly organising the Olympics and Paralympics in the history of the games. He characterised it as an opportunity of lifetime to be internalising the social model of disability in the public discourse. Mr Frost described the momentous effort in implementing inclusive design and ensuring accessibility in the games.
According to him, the legacy of the games was twofold—first, the physical legacy of a transformed physical space which was disabled friendly; secondly, the philosophical legacy of valuing the disabled and rights of persons with disabilities. Ms Katharine Quarmby, journalist and author of the book Scapegoat, was however sceptical of the lasting impact of the Paralympics legacy. As a specialist in disability related hate crime, she expressed her disappointment in the games having failed in bringing about a balance in attitudes towards disability. She emphasised that the games could not substitute the lack of political will and action in disability policy. She concluded by highlighting the confusing messages the coalition government has sent in promoting Paralympic games on the one hand and the cuts in disability benefits on the other.
John Lish, expanded on the spate of decisions which have confirmed the disability cuts and how deeply they entrench the disadvantage of persons with disabilities. He pointed to the unhelpful and arbitrary distinction between social and healthcare needs for persons with disabilities and underscored the whole spectrum of needs which pan far beyond the accessibility needs highlighted in Paralympic infrastructural initiatives. Given the environment of austerity, he underlined the need for as much social funding as healthcare for persons with disabilities. Because the Paralympic legacy of changing attitudes seems rather passive, more concrete and facilitative steps need to be undertaken to realise the rights and freedoms of persons with disabilities.
Finally, Ms Alison Lapper MBE, celebrated artist and subject of the Marc Quinn sculpture ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, which appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, shared her personal experience with disability cuts. She spoke against the lack of debate and consultation in withdrawing disability benefits, something which belies the governing motto ‘nothing about us, without us’. She highlighted how care is the key to unlocking an autonomous life for persons with disabilities. By taking away care, the State is also slowly eroding the rights of persons with disabilities.
The ensuing discussion touched upon significant themes of mobilisation of the disability movement in today’s era, access to employment and education and disability hate crime. Closer home, Marie Tidball, the Chair of the Organising Committee of the event stressed on the personal and institutional need for reflecting upon making the University of Oxford a real home for over one thousand students with disabilities enrolled here. The event marked a first in not only organising a disability specific moot for students at the Law Faculty but also in bringing together a range of critical perspectives and consolidating the voices which support the realisation of rights of persons with disabilities.