Dorde Jovanovic, president of the European Roma Rights Centre © Jasmin Brutus

When Dorde Jovanovic was in elementary school in the 1980s, he could not see the blackboard. A Roma by ethnicity, he and his Romani classmates, living in a village outside Belgrade, were told to sit in the back row and given separate work from the rest of the class — “to keep you quiet”, he says.

Mr Jovanovic, who is short-sighted, could not see what the teacher was writing on the board. When his parents complained, “the teacher said, ‘I can’t move him forward’,” he says. Segregating Romani children was school policy.

After providing a note from a doctor about his eyesight, Mr Jovanovic was moved to the front of the class, where he was exposed for the first time to what the other children were learning.

“I was the only Roma child in the class who passed to the next grade,” says Mr Jovanovic, who is now president of the European Roma Rights Centre, a public interest organisation based in Brussels and Budapest.

The segregation of Romani children is widespread in schools across Europe, where prejudice against the ethnic minority is pervasive. Research by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2014 found segregation in mainstream education affected between 33 and 58 per cent of Romani children in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Greece. Yet Hungarian national court rulings as long ago as 1997 had found educational segregation was unequal and unlawful.

1%Estimated number of Roma entering higher education in Europe

Access to education is vital for Romani children’s integration and social mobility. According to the UN, an estimated 1 per cent of Roma enter higher education in Europe.

Mr Jovanovich says that at university, he was among 10 Roma in a student population of 10,000.

Human rights lawyers are using strategic litigation to challenge the normalised social segregation that begins in school. “We are going to the courts to make a record that this is happening to children,” says Mr Jovanovic.

In 2018, based on a ruling from 2017 that found unlawful segregation was still occurring in one district of northern Hungary and that those subjected to it could seek punitive damages, lawyers at Allen & Overy pursued a case on behalf of a community of more than 60 Roma children who had been segregated.

The law firm worked with the Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF), a Roma rights non-governmental organisation (since closed); it was the first time damages had been sought for this number of children. Previous Hungarian legislation on desegregation had ruled it a violation of human rights, but that had not been enough to discourage the practice in rural schools, where the authorities had little oversight.

Romani children are often relegated to separate classrooms, to be taught by less well-qualified teachers and given less demanding schoolwork. It is not uncommon for them to have separate, inferior bathrooms on different floors or to be excluded from certain areas, such as swimming pools, on the grounds that they do not have adequate attire. Many are placed in schools or programmes for children with mental disabilities.

Finding the right case
A challenge for lawyers had been finding complainants for these types of cases. Roma communities can be tightknit, insular and distrustful of the motives of lawyers from outside. But Adél Kegye, former lawyer with the CFCF, identified a village in northern Hungary with a large Roma settlement that offered an opportunity to pursue a case for damages for segregation.

In 2011, far-right nationalists carrying banners and torches demonstrated against Roma in Gyöngyöspata, terrifying them and blaming them for economic problems.

When Ms Kegye approached villagers about challenging discrimination in schools, they were ready to fight back. “I don’t think we would have been able to do it in any other locality or village,” she says. “All this trauma brought together the community and they had nothing to lose.”

Roma villagers leaving Gyöngyöspata, north-eastern Hungary, as far-right activists gathered in the area to demonstrate © Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

In a class-action lawsuit, lawyers acted for the Romani children who had been segregated by their school, arguing that its actions had resulted in a financial cost to their development and opportunities. The suit was against the education authorities, the municipality and the state, in the hope that being forced to pay costly damages for segregation would deter other small municipalities.

The education authorities, however, refused to provide documents that the lawyers then had to obtain by court order. The court heard testimonies from every child, as well as many parents, as their lawyers sought to present a full picture of the costs.

The claimants sought damages of Ft500,000 ($1,750) per child, per year segregated, a figure the lawyers deemed both justifiable and realistic given previous case law. In the end, the judge awarded a fifth of this sum. The judgment also considered whether individual children were disruptive in class, a consideration that the advocates argue is unfair.

“Roma are lagging behind,” says Balázs Sahin-Tóth, a lawyer at Allen & Overy in Budapest. “Education is the only way in the long term they can catch up and find a meaningful future.” He says that while legislation can demand better integration, implementation is another story. “Integration appears from the mouth of the government, but the burden of integration falls on the municipalities,” he says.

In February, the CFCF won another desegregation case involving 13 schools, which now all have formal plans to integrate their classrooms.

Mr Jovanovic laments that his role fighting for Roma rights is still necessary in 2019. “That people are still segregating people based on their ethnicity . . . it’s almost unimaginable that something so primitive is still happening in Europe,” he says.

“They’re children. Why on earth would anyone do that to children?”

The tables below rank law firms for the FT Innovative Lawyers Europe awards.

Rule of Law and Access to Justice
Rank Law firm Description Originality Leadership Impact Total
STANDOUT Spanish National Bar (Consejo General de la Abogacía Española) Developed the Legal Aid Switchboard, which acts as a single point of contact to improve co-ordination of legal aid assistance in Spain. It connects detention centres, courts, local bar associations and lawyers, using an algorithm that ensures the right lawyers are connected to each case. The system has been implemented in eight bars with 3,600 lawyers. Approximately 60,000 matters were managed through the system in 2018, reducing waiting times for those seeking legal aid. 9 9 8 26
STANDOUT Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher Led a legal and political campaign in the UK against “upskirting”, the act of capturing images under a woman’s skirt without her permission. This resulted in an amendment to the Sex Offences Act of 2003 that decided perpetrators would be tried as sex offenders. Associate Ryan Whelan drafted the bill, successfully argued there was a gap in the current law, and lobbied for the bill’s adoption on the grounds that it was already law in Scotland, which kept the campaign apolitical in the face of opposition. The bill was passed into law in February 2019. Commended: Ryan Whelan. 8 9 8 25
STANDOUT The Divorce Surgery Previously untested in the UK, the organisation enables barristers to give joint family-law advice to couples commencing divorce proceedings, so both are given the same impartial assessment of how the proceedings are likely to play out in financial and custodial terms, helping to remove power imbalances. Founding barristers have applied for funding to make their service available to disadvantaged families. Commended: Samantha Woodham and Harry Gates. 8 9 8 25
STANDOUT Therium Group The commercial litigation funder set up Therium Access to fund legal aid cases, projects and charities. This helps to fill gaps left by cuts to legal aid funding and to increase access to justice in the UK. 9 9 7 25
STANDOUT DLA Piper Helped charity UP Zambia extend its work on child justice into the Copperbelt province of the country, conducting research interviews with children to help inform the charity’s work and pursuing leads on individual cases. The firm advocated for policy and structural changes in Zambia, resulting in the appointment of a new judicial leader for child justice tasked with training magistrates and judges. 7 8 9 24
HIGHLY COMMENDED Hogan Lovells Worked with Justice for Magdalenes Research and the Adoption Rights Alliance on the Clann Project, developing a confidential process to gather witness statements about the experiences of unmarried mothers and their children in Ireland in the 20th century. Their work encouraged witnesses to come forward and helped gather the evidentiary record for the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. The resulting report is available to the public, which provides greater transparency and openness around the experiences of unmarried mothers and their children, including forced adoption. 8 8 8 24
HIGHLY COMMENDED Allen & Overy; Adél Kegye; Eleonóra Hernádi and Peter Gárdos Acted for 62 Roma children in a lawsuit to assess the monetary value of the damages suffered by children who were segregated in Hungary’s state education system. Lawyers advocated for children in more than 40 court hearings, with testimony from teachers and families, to establish the impact of the segregation on children’s chances of employment, condemn the state’s failure to end segregation and draw attention to discrimination faced by the Roma people in Hungary. 7 9 7 23
HIGHLY COMMENDED Baker McKenzie With the University of Milan and Farsi Prossimo, an Italian non-governmental organisation that helps find refugees employment, the firm established a programme to source two-month paid work placements for skilled refugees. The firm recruited corporate partners to the programme who submit job profiles to be filled by the refugee candidate pool. More than 40 refugees have benefited so far, with approximately 40 per cent of participants securing permanent employment following the placement. 8 8 7 23
HIGHLY COMMENDED Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and RCJ Advice The firm developed a module on its CourtNav platform, in collaboration with RCJ Advice, to assist female victims of domestic abuse seeking non-molestation orders. A new network of frontline agencies and legal aid lawyers also helps people to access the tool and improve the legal aid lawyers referral system. 7 9 7 23
HIGHLY COMMENDED NautaDutilh and Hocker Sued the Dutch government to compel the state to take adequate action on climate change, the first case in which a court held that a state breached a legal obligation towards its citizens by failing to take adequate climate action. 8 8 7 23
COMMENDED Russell-Cooke Working with Lawyers in Charities, the firm developed a free legal resource for in-house lawyers in charities, enabling them to access compliance information and precedent without the liability concerns that arise when this is shared between the organisations. The knowledge platform covers common issues such as campaigning, data protection, property, fundraising and volunteers. 7 8 7 22
COMMENDED White & Case The firm is working to create an index for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies that identifies necessary categories and indicators to score a country’s legal framework around risk reduction, preparedness, response and recovery, as well as the extent to which these laws address the auxiliary role of the IFRC. Close to 200 countries have been reviewed for disaster preparedness. 8 7 7 22
COMMENDED Eversheds Sutherland Submitted a freedom of information request to the UK government that confirmed a suspicion that the majority of applications made by employers for restricted certificates of sponsorship for skilled foreign workers were being rejected. Lawyers used the data set to show the impact of the skills shortage on different industries and disclosed it to the UK media, leading to immediate change in application processing for doctors. The data continues to be used by industry groups to campaign for immigration reform. Commended: Simon Kenny. 5 8 8 21
COMMENDED Dechert Lawyers convinced judges at the court of appeals in Russia to consider independent expert analysis in the case of a person previously incarcerated for mental health issues. Previous reports that did not consider substantive changes in mental health of individuals were proved to be formulaic and ultimately prevented individuals from reintegrating into society. 6 7 7 20
COMMENDED Herbert Smith Freehills Became the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ first MADE51 strategic partner, helping refugees to participate in the global economy and change perceptions of their societal contributions. The firm helps refugees sell their own art, including providing advice on intellectual property, labour rights, contracts and data protection. In Tanzania alone, one US company has placed an order worth $50,000. 6 7 7 20
COMMENDED Red Lion Chambers Produced a brief to argue that the International Criminal Court had jurisdiction over the mass deportation of 670,000 Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, even though Myanmar is not a party to the Rome Treaty. The court found there was jurisdiction as crimes had been committed in Bangladesh. The court cited the brief drafted by Red Lion Chambers in its decision. 6 7 7 20
COMMENDED Simmons & Simmons Led by its in-house social welfare lawyer, the firm helps in areas affected by cuts to UK legal aid, such as disability benefits claims. Currently, 70 per cent of appeals decisions in the first stage of the claims process are successful with or without counsel; with counsel the success rate rises to 96 per cent. 6 7 7 20
COMMENDED Ellex Established a foundation that produces legal and political analysis as well as legislative proposals on state reform for the Estonian parliament. The foundation put ideas forward to the public using social media to enhance debate over state governance in the Baltics. 6 8 5 19
COMMENDED European Roma Rights Centre Roma-led, the organisation uses strategic litigation to tackle poverty among Romani communities, bringing cases against companies and government bodies accused of discrimination. The group has successfully litigated against a Serbian electricity company that collectively billed a Roma settlement for electricity usage, and supports actions against interior ministries in Macedonia, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine for alleged racist policing. 6 7 6 19
COMMENDED Gómez-Acebo & Pombo and Fundación Fernando Pombo Worked to enable collaboration between legal aid, civil service and private practice lawyers in Spain that had previously not been possible at an institutional level. A guide produced by the foundation gathered knowhow from different groups on the legal rights of migrants before, during and after internment in a detention centre, as well as the structural changes needed to increase access to justice. 6 8 5 19

Explore the Innovative Lawyers Europe rankings 2019


  • Most Innovative Law Firms in Europe
  • Most Innovative In-house Legal Teams in Europe
  • Rule of law and Access to Justice
  • Collaboration

Business of Law

  • Data, Knowledge and Intelligence
  • Managing and Developing Talent / Diversity and Inclusion
  • New Business and Service Delivery Models
  • New Products and Services
  • Strategy and Changing Behaviours
  • Talent, Strategy and Changing Behaviours
  • Technology

Legal Expertise

  • Accessing New Markets and Capital
  • Creating a New Standard
  • Dispute Resolution
  • Enabling Business Growth and Transformation
  • Managing Complexity and Scale
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article