Litigating to protect the rights of poor and marginalized groups in urban spaces

For centuries, and across the world, penal laws have been used to regulate urban spaces, with a cruel focus on relegating poor and marginalized groups from such spaces. Criminal laws, particularly vagrancy offenses, have consistently been used to arrest, detain, evict, or put to work those persons who are deemed unfit to occupy public spaces. Realizing the impact of these offenses, jurists and human rights advocates have, at times, used litigation to challenge discriminatory laws and their enforcement. In doing so, they have exposed these laws and enforcement practices as inimical to the rule of law and the principle of universal rights. Such litigation, even when successful, has often failed to significantly change policing practices and prevent the creation of new offenses with similar effects.

Providing historical and current examples, this Article sketches the creation and implementation of vagrancy offenses in Africa. The Article postulates what the prerequisites are for public interest litigation, which seeks to protect poor and marginalized groups, reform policing practices, and ensure inclusive urban spaces.

Year: 2020
Resource Type:
Journal Article
Petty Offences
Human Rights
Use of Public Spaces
People Groups:
Children & Young People
People in Detention
People with Disabilities
People who use Drugs
Elderly People
People experiencing Homelessness or live in informal settlements
Informal Workers
LGBTQIA+ persons
People affected by Displacement (including migrants and refugees)
People experiencing Poverty
Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)
Sex Workers
Women and Girls
Strategic Litigation
Policy Reform
Campaign Partner:
Southern Africa Litigation Centre