High Court overturns 'discriminatory' law

On final day in role, retiring Supreme Court president approves petitions against law denying income support to those with cars.

By
February 28, 2012 10:18
Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch_390. (photo credit: Pool/Alex Kolomoisky)

 
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A High Court panel of seven justices, headed by outgoing Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, ruled unanimously on Tuesday to overturn two clauses in the Income Support Law, which prohibit people who own a car from receiving income support.

Itach – Women Lawyers for Social Justice, Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Sawt al-Amel (“Worker’s Voice”) and the Legal Aid Department of the Justice Ministry together filed three petitions on behalf of individuals denied income support on the basis that they had the use of a car.

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Adalah and Sawt al-Amel’s petitioners included an Arab Israeli man refused income support because he used a car to drive his blind daughter to the hospital for medical treatment, because his village does not have adequate public transport.

Itach’s and the Legal Aid Department’s petitioners were single mothers who needed to use cars to take their children to school and kindergarten.

One petitioner had used her family’s car three times a month in order to work, and was forced to quit her job to receive income support.

The petitions, which named as respondents the National Insurance Institute and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, argued that two clauses in the Income Support law discriminate against weaker populations.

Under the law, individuals and families not capable of ensuring a basic minimum subsistence income are eligible for income support payments, as long as they meet certain requirements.

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However, the law also states that “a vehicle owned or utilized by the insured person precludes entitlement to benefits,” a clause that both civil and women’s rights groups have opposed, arguing that it harms weaker sections of the population.

The panel of seven justices – Beinisch, Miriam Naor, Edna Arbel, Elyakim Rubinstein, Salim Joubran, Esther Hayut and Uzi Vogelman – agreed that the Income Support Law was unconstitutional, since it violates the right to a basic dignified human existence.

Beinisch said that she and her colleagues had found that right to be “deeply rooted in the very core of the constitutional right to human dignity,” as set out in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

“It is not possible to have the right to dignity without respecting an individual’s right to the minimal conditions of human existence,” the Supreme Court president said.

Beinisch added that the starting point of the judgment was that it is the state’s duty to determine the minimum living conditions and to set up the welfare system accordingly.

In the ruling, Beinisch cited the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which said that “whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal, states shall have the obligation to fulfill [provide] that right directly.”

The High Court undertook a detailed judicial review to determine whether the Income Support Law clause was constitutional, and whether it withstands the proportionality test determined in the limitations clause of Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

Though Israel does not have a constitution, its Basic Laws are constitutional in nature, and the court examined whether the law violated the socalled “limitations clause,” which allows the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty to be infringed by new laws “befitting the values of the State of Israel, enacted for a proper purpose and to an extent no greater than required.”

The state had argued that because the petitions related to social rights, not political-civil ones, a different model of judicial review should be applied to examine whether social rights are unconstitutional.

However, the justices had debated at length whether there was a distinction between socioeconomic rights and political-civil rights, and had found that there was not, Beinisch said – and so the court agreed that the same form of judicial review should be used to determine whether a Knesset law violates any right, whether civil or social.

“We found that the law does not meet the proportionality test and held that it is possible to achieve the proper purpose of the clause – to ensure that state support is granted only to those who need it – by using less harmful means,” Beinisch said.

Attorney Hassan Jabarin, general director of Adalah, said Beinisch had “chosen to end her term [as president] with a historic judgment that protects the poor, Jews and Arabs alike.”

Jabarin said that he hoped the ruling would be a “cornerstone” for judgments across the courts system.

“This important ruling sends a message that it is the state’s duty to protect people’s dignity by ensuring them a minimal human existence,” Jabarin added. “We hope this message will be internalized and put to use by other state authorities and institutions.”

The Legal Aid Department filed its petition on behalf of a single mother, who had to use her parents’ car to collect her children from school.

Attorney Eyal Globus, who heads the Legal Aid Department, said that the High Court’s ruling had reached a balance between economic and budgetary considerations and citizens’ rights to live in dignity.

“The sweeping provision [of the Income Support Law] was inconsistent with Israel’s constitutional rights, and especially because it violated the right of the most disadvantaged groups to a dignified existence,” he said.

Globus added that even though the Legal Aid Department is a government body, its role is to represent individuals and to act as a gatekeeper for their basic rights.

The department chose to file the High Court petition to try to bring relief to many of its clients, who had been deprived of income support on the grounds that they had use of a car.

“Our experience as a body representing populations who have minimal means, including those on income support, has taught us that [the Income Support Law] affected thousands of people,” Globus said.

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