Unintended consequences of special-needs law in Ireland and Sweden

Mary Shine Thompson (Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland)
Ann-Katrin Lena Svaerd (Department of Education and Special Education, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Publication date: 4 February 2019



This paper aims to trace parallels in the unintended consequences of interpretations of special-needs law in Ireland and Sweden.


The paper is conceptual, based on Irish and Swedish legal reports, studies and national planning documents on supports for people with disabilities. It begins by discussing unintended consequences, and then analyses the Irish court decision in Sinnott v. Minister for Education (2001), which stated that the State’s obligation to provide for education for people with special education needs (SENs) ceases when they reach 18 years. It considers how economic considerations influenced that decision. The focus then diverts to Sweden’s human rights culture and the 1994 legislation, LSS (Sweden’s Act Concerning Support and Services for Persons with Certain Functional Impairments), which enshrines equality and support for people with disabilities, including personal assistance (PA). Cost-saving restrictions on PA allowances are discussed.


While the Irish State enacted a law on education rights following the Sinnott case the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (2004), or EPSEN (2004), it restricts those rights, and sections remain uncommenced. The case may have exhausted litigation as a remedy for people with SENs. In Sweden, austerity diluted the impact of LSS, leading to reduced entitlements and intrusions on privacy. It allowed legal discourse to dominate discussion. Families were negatively affected. In both countries, human rights may have suffered. Identifying which consequences of the legal actions were unintended, and which party did not intend them, can be problematic.

Practical implications

The paper concludes that the courts limited entitlement to the detriment of people with disabilities, and that caution must be exercised in having recourse to law courts in settling entitlements.


The paper is an original analysis of unintended consequences of legal interventions in special-needs policy. It illustrates difficulties in matching visions and systemic requirements in legal and the educational domains.



Shine Thompson, M. and Svaerd, A. (2019), "Unintended consequences of special-needs law in Ireland and Sweden", Kybernetes, Vol. 48 No. 2, pp. 333-347. https://doi.org/10.1108/K-06-2018-0307

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