Shining a light:

how criminal law impacts the homeless

Hands behind prison bars

A Law School-led research collaboration is exploring ways to reduce the criminalisation of homeless and disadvantaged people across the country.

Chief investigator Professor Tamara Walsh said the project was a national comparison of how criminal law affects homeless and disadvantaged people occupying public spaces around Australia.

“We’re looking at the impact of criminal law and police powers in 10 Australian cities spanning every state and territory,” Professor Walsh said.

“It allows us to study the jurisdictions that do things well and compare them to the jurisdictions with high levels of criminalisation of these groups.

“Based on our findings, we’ll make recommendations around how our legal systems can better respond to the needs of homeless and disadvantaged people.”

Funded by the Australian Research Council, the three-year project is the culmination of a decade-long partnership between Professor Walsh and homelessness legal services across Australia.

Partners involved in the project are LawRight, Public Interest Advocacy Centre Ltd, Justice Connect, Street Law Canberra, Hobart Community Legal Service, Street Law Centre WA Incorporated, Darwin Community Legal Service Inc, Townsville Community Legal Service Inc, Welfare Rights Centre SA Inc and Illawarra Legal Centre Inc.

Academic collaborators Professor Luke McNamara (University of New South Wales), Associate Professor Thalia Anthony (University of Technology Sydney) and Associate Professor Julia Quilter (University of Wollongong) are also part of the research team led by Professor Walsh.

To date, the team has interviewed around 180 people experiencing homelessness across Australia, as well as lawyers and magistrates.

Legal services staff have been involved throughout, conducting the interviews with their homeless or at-risk clients and networking with their equivalents in other jurisdictions to share their experiences, concerns and wisdom.

Homeless youth
Homeless youth
Homeless youth

Critically, the research team has already observed a strong link between mental health issues, homelessness and criminalisation.

Professor Walsh said limited mental health support often resulted in people struggling to maintain their tenancies, ultimately landing them in public spaces where they attracted police attention.

She said this outcome placed the police in an “unenviable position” where they felt pressured to act, and this often resulted in vulnerable people ending up behind bars.

“Not only is this punitive method expensive, but it doesn’t make sense from a moral, ethical or rights-based perspective,” she said.

“We believe it’s inappropriate to use the legal system to deal with these complex social, health and economic problems.

“Our partners hope that by shining a light on issues that affect their clients, more resources will be allocated to community legal centres who advocate for people experiencing disadvantage, and that effective legal responses will be developed.”
Professor Tamara Walsh

Professor Tamara Walsh

Professor Tamara Walsh

Read more inspiring research partnership stories from the 2019 BEL Research Profile.