Professor of Health Law
School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies
Professor Kate Diesfeld has made it her life’s vocation to work with disabled people. A long-time legal advocate, she observed the prejudices faced by people with disabilities at a young age in Alaska, prompting her to pursue a career in health law.
After studying law at the University of San Diego, California, Professor Diesfeld represented people with intellectual disabilities. She was then invited to join the University of Kent in England, where she co-designed a free mental health law clinic – the first of many pioneering legal aid services she has founded throughout her career.
She cites her advocacy work as some of the most exciting and meaningful of her career. She complements this by using her research for advocacy, to influence policy and system-level decision-making. She has made a substantial contribution to advancing two key strands of research – the legal rights of disabled people and tribunal decision-making.
Professor Diesfeld’s research with disabled people into their unmet legal needs was a catalyst for the launch of Auckland Disability Law. This is the first community law centre in New Zealand dedicated to providing free representation and advice for people with disabilities. With a research team, she is also developing web-based toolkits to prepare lawyers and advocates for optimum representation of disabled people.
To make the law more transparent, Professor Diesfeld has analysed the decision-making of New Zealand’s Mental Health Review Tribunal. To understand what contributes to professional misconduct, she has examined the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal. Her goal is to illuminate how the law operates, its effects and how it may be improved.
This illustrates Professor Diesfeld’s passion for using the law preventively, which was a key driver for the incorporation of health law into undergraduate training of health professionals at AUT. It also informs her work as Chair of the AUT Ethics Committee, a mentor and postgraduate supervisor, through which she supports the next generation of advocates.