Skip to main content

The Commonwealth and decriminalization of poverty

Raising awareness across the Commonwealth of the needs for the decriminalisation of poverty.

This project, based in the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, seeks to raise awareness across the Commonwealth of the multiple needs for the decriminalisation of poverty, in support of Sustainable Development Goal 16, 'Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions'.

Criminal justice institutions are among the most powerful tools that states have at their disposal to assert social control and oppress dissent, backed by state-sanctioned use of lethal force, extreme and disproportionate sentencing, as well as overcrowding and inhumane conditions of detention. These comprise multiple forms of oppression, including combinations of gender, mental health, race, ethnicity, nationality and class, which negatively inflect legal outcomes for marginalized constituencies. These constituencies include the homeless, women, and landless and land-poor groups, people with disabilities, the LGBTIQ+ community, sex workers, informal traders, and individuals who otherwise use public spaces to earn a living.

Project approach

This project will involve a scoping exercise of colonial-era and legacy laws, and institutions which underpin them, which have been utilised to criminalise petty offences to the detriment of those in extreme poverty, the marginalized and first nation/adivarsi communities. This includes assessment of legislation and criminalisation constraining forest rights, women, poor people's small-scale enterprises/vending, and denials of access to supposedly available government programmes/benefits.

The project focuses particularly on the case studies of India and Bangladesh and analyses the processes which have led to successful efforts to remove colonial era laws that damage poor, vulnerable groups.  This enables identification of possible means to achieve similar successes in other Commonwealth jurisdictions.

Impact and outreach

Summary findings have already been submitted to Commonwealth Law Ministers who have called for further research.

In addition, the project team are organising a series of meetings and workshops to raise awareness and promote advocacy of judicial reform, using Commonwealth networks. These include Commonwealth Lawyers Association, and the Commonwealth Secretariat. The project leaders are working with the Rule of Law section at the Commonwealth Secretariat on the preparation of research for the next Commonwealth Law Ministers meeting (2024).

Further Information

The team includes:

The project is funded by the Open Society Foundation.