Homelessness and Public Space Offences in Australia – A Human Rights Orientated Case for Narrow Interpretation


  • Julian Murphy University of Melbourne


Australia continues to enforce laws that have the effect of criminalizing homelessness, even in the face of sharp rebukes from the United Nations. One category of such laws can be described as “public space offences”; these are laws that criminalize otherwise lawful activity on the basis that it is done in a public place. Unsurprisingly, homeless people living in public spaces are particularly vulnerable to prosecution under these laws. In this article I argue that, when understood against the backdrop of international human rights law, public spaces offences in Australia should be construed narrowly so as not to criminalize conduct that is an incident of homelessness.

Author Biography

Julian Murphy, University of Melbourne

PhD student, School of Law


A Articles/Books/Reports

Bevitt, Andrew, Journeys Home Research Report No. 6: Complete Findings from Waves 1 to 6 (Report, May 2015)

Chamberlain, Chris and David MacKenzie, ‘Understanding Contemporary Homelessness: Issues of Definition and Meaning’ (1992) 27 Australian Journal of Social Issues 274

Charlesworth, Hilary, 'The Universal Declaration of Human Rights', in Wolfrum (ed), Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Department of Attorney-General and Justice, Final Report: Review of the Summary Offences Act, (Report, August 2013)

Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, The Road Home: A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness (Report, 2008)

Forell, Suzie, Emily MacCarron & Louis Shetzer, No Home, No Justice? The Legal needs of homeless people in NSW: Access to Justice and Legal Needs (Report, Vol 2, July 2005)

Foscarinis, Maria, ‘Homelessness, litigation and law reform strategies: A United States Perspective’ (2004) 10 Australian Journal of Human Rights 105

Foscarinis Maria, et al. ‘The Human Right to Housing: Making the Case in the US’ (2004)

Clearinghouse Review Journal of Poverty Law and Policy 97

France, Anatole, Le Lys Rouge (1910) 3

Gray, Stephen and Jenny Blokland, Criminal Laws Northern Territory (Federation Press, 2nd ed, 2012)

Lavery, Priscilla, ‘Homelessness and Public Spaces Issues in Darwin’ (2014) 27 Parity 14

Lynch, Phillip, ‘Begging for Change: Homelessness and the Law’ (2002) 26 Melbourne University Law Review 690

Lynch, Philip, ‘From “cause” to “solution”: Using the law to respond to homelessness’ (2003) 28 Alternative Law Journal 127

Lynch, Philip and Jacqueline Cole, ‘Homelessness and Human Rights: Regarding and Responding to Homelessness as Human Rights Violation’ (2003) 4 Melbourne Journal of International Law 139

Law Council of Australia, The Justice Project – Homeless Persons Consultation Paper (Paper, 2017)

Midgley, Beth, ‘Achieving Just Outcomes for Homeless People through Court Process’ (2005) 15 Journal of Judicial Administration 82

Moss, Irene, Policing Public Safety (Report, New South Wales Ombudsman 1999)

Parsell, Cameron and Mitch Parsell, ‘Homelessness as a Choice’ (2012) 29 Housing, Theory and Society 420

Pearce, DC, and RS Geddes, Statutory Interpretation in Australia (LexisNexis, 8th ed. 2014)

Pottinger v City of Miami 76 F3d 1154 (11th Cir 1996)

Sackville, Ronald, ‘Homelessness, Human Rights and the Law’ (2004) 10 Australian Journal of Human Rights 11

Walsh, Tamara, Homelessness and the Law (Federation Press, 2011)

Walsh, Tamara and Monica Taylor, ‘“You’re Not Welcome Here”: Police move-on powers and anti-discrimination law’ (2007) 30 University of New South Wales Law Journal 151

B Cases

Applicant A v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (1997) 190 CLR 225

Commonwealth v Tasmania (1983) 158 CLR 1

Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs v Teoh (1995) 183 CLR 273

Minogue v Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1999) 84 FCR 438

Rowe v Kemper [2009] 1 Qd R 247

Samuels v Stokes (1973) 130 CLR 490

Victoria v Commonwealth (1996) 187 CLR 416

Zheng v Cai (2009) 239 CLR 446

C Legislation

Acts Interpretation Act 1954 (Qld)

Acts Interpretation Act 1931 (Tas)

Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic)

Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT)

Human Rights Act 2019 (Qld)

Infringements Act 2006 (Vic)

Infringements Regulations 2016 (Vic)

Interpretation Act 1984 (WA)

Interpretation Act 1987 (NSW)

Interpretation Act 1987 (NT)

Interpretation of Legislation Act 1984 (Vic)

Inquest into the death of Perry Jabanangka Langdon [2015] NTMC 016

Legislation Act 2001 (ACT)

Liquor Act 1978 (NT)

Police Act 1892 (WA)

Police Offences Act 1935 (Tas)

Police Powers and Responsibilities Act 2000 (Qld)

Summary Offences Act 1923 (NT)

Summary Offences Act 1953 (SA)

Vagrancy Act 1966 (Vic)

Vagrants, Gaming and Other Offences Act 1931 (Qld)

D Treaties

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Concluding Observations, E/C.12/AUS/CO/5 (July 11, 2017)

Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Concluding Observations, 2496-2597th sess, CERD/C/AUS/CO/18-20 (26 December 2017)

Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Concluding Observations, 2299-2300th sess, CERD C/USA/CO/7-9 (28 September 2014)

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, opened for signature 18 December 1979, 1249 UNTS 13 (entered into force 3 September 1981)

Convention on the Rights of the Child, opened for signature 20 November 1989, 1577 UNTS 3 (entered into force 2 September 1990)

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No 4: The Right to Adequate Housing, 6th sess, UN Doc E/1992/23 (13 December 1991)

Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, opened for signature 10 December 1984, 1465 UNTS 85

Declaration on Social Progress and Development, GA Dec 2542(24) UN Doc A/RES/24/2542 (11 December 1969)

Declaration on the Right to Development, GA Res 128(41) UN Doc A/RES/41/128 (4 December 1986)

Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations, 110th sess, CCPR/C/USA/CO/4, (23 April 2014)

International Labour Organisation, ILO Recommendation Concerning Workers’ Housing No. 115, 45th sess, (28 June 1961)

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, opened for signature 16 December 1966, 993 UNTS 3 (entered into force 3 January 1976).

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, opened for signature 21 December 1965, 660 UNTS 195 (entered into force 4 January 1969)

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, GA Res 61/295, UN Doc. A/RES/61/295 (2 October 2007, adopted September 2007)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, GA Res 217A (III), UN GAOR, UN Doc A/810 (10 December 1948)

Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements Sales No. E.76.IV.7 and Corr. 1, taken from UN General Assembly, Habitat: United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, 31st sess, A/RES/31/109, (16 December 1976)

E Other

Australian Bureau of Statistics, Information Paper: A Statistical Definition of Homelessness 2012; Factsheet: Homelessness in concept and in some measurement contexts (Catalogue No 4922.0, 4 September 2012

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2049.0 Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness 2016 – Key Findings (Catalogue No 2049.0, 29 March 2018)

Butler, Josh, ‘Melbourne’s Laws Outlawing Homelessness, and the Campaign to Reverse Them’ Huffington Post (online, 6 April 2017) <https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/04/06/melbournes-laws-outlawing-homelessness-and-the-campaign-to-rev_a_22027975/>

Clark, Cristy, ‘Clearing Homeless Camps Compounds the Violation of Human Rights and Entrenches the Problem’ The Conversation, (10 August 2017) <http://theconversation.com/clearing-homeless-camps-compounds-the-violation-of-human-rights-and-entrenches-the-problem-82253>

Farha, Leilani, ‘Proposed “Homeless Ban” in Australia cause for concern – UN Expert’, United Nations Human Rights: Officer of the High Commissioner (Media Release, 13 March 2017) <http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=2 1357&LangID=E>

Farrell, James ‘Councils are Criminalising Homelessness’ ABC News (online, 8 February 2011) <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-02-08/how_councils_are_crimi nalising_homelesness/43734>

‘Proposed “Homeless Ban” in Australia cause for concern – UN Expert’ United Nations Human Rights: Officer of the High Commissioner (Media Release, 13 March 2017) <http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21357&LangID=E>

United Nations Human Rights, ‘Moving away from the criminalization of homelessness, a step in the right direction’, Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation (Press Release 23 April 2012) <http://sr-watersanitation.ohchr.org/en/Pressrelease_usa_2.html>