Introducing a “New” Human Right: Learning From Others, Bringing Legal Capacity Home

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Kristin Booth Glen is University Professor and Dean Emerita, CUNY School of Law; Director, Supported Decision Making New York (SDMNY); Surrogate, New York County (Ret.).

The human right of legal capacity, most recently enunciated in Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), potentially transforms the way we see, understand, and treat people with a wide range of intellectual, developmental, and cognitive disabilities. This Article considers how the human right of legal capacity, specifically for persons with disabilities, can be incorporated into legal discourse and practice in the United States. It recognizes the many challenges such an endeavor confronts. As well, it notes opportunities to enhance and improve the dignity, autonomy, and self-determination of persons who are routinely deprived of the right, most commonly through systems of substituted decision-making, like guardianship and conservatorship, or, in the case of persons with psychosocial disabilities, forced treatment or confinement.

This Article also looks at the ways in which legal capacity and the corresponding practice of supported decision-making (SDM) have been introduced in countries around the world and draws on those countries’ experiences. Some countries have focused exclusively on legislative reform; others have utilized pilot projects demonstrating that protecting legal capacity through the use of SDM can constitute an effective and rights-enhancing alternative to guardianship. Incorporating references to some of these efforts in Europe, Africa, and Australia, this Article focuses on two of the longest-standing and most-developed efforts—those in Canada and Bulgaria—for lessons that might be learned. It considers efforts in the United States, which have, thus far, concentrated on SDM to the exclusion of the specific right of legal capacity. This Article concludes with some observations about what it will take to bring this critical human right “home.”

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