Mind the Gap: the Joan Fitzpatrick Memorial Lecture on Poverty and Equality delivered by Professor Sandra Fredman

On 24 July 2012, Professor Sandra Fredman delivered the 9th annual Joan Fitzpatrick Memorial Lecture. In light of an austere economic climate, Professor Fredman delivered a timely call for a new understanding of substantive equality that can cast light on the experience of poverty and the ways law can address it.

She argued that the traditional separation of ‘status based equality rights’ on one hand, and redistributive policies on the other is no longer maintainable. Rather, poverty should be recognized as an equality issue and addressed through a multi-dimensional view of equality. Pragmatically, this is important for countries without entrenched protection for socio-economic rights.

With respect to poverty, substantive equality focuses on:

  • Breaking the cycle of disadvantage associated with poverty;
  • Promoting dignity and worth, redressing stereotyping, stigma humiliation and violence that are often experienced by those living in poverty;
  • Accommodating difference and aim to achieve structural change;
  • Facilitating full participation of all members of the community, both politically and socially.

Professor Fredman highlighted that poverty is an equality issue that has an impact upon us all: research demonstrates that greater gaps in communities between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ lessens the cumulative health of the community. This is further evidenced by the social disharmony resulting from the current banking crisis experienced in the United Kingdom where extreme wealth disparities have heightened tensions. She argued that poverty needs to be defined in terms of both the provision of minimum justice, and comparative wealth (where wealth is understood to include more than just income) if the recognition harms resulting from poverty discrimination are to be addressed.

She argued there are two ways for poverty to be brought into the rubric of an equality analysis: by including poverty as a ground of discrimination and through pro-active equality duties. She examined the jurisprudence of several different courts: Canada, US, South Africa and the UK and concluded that courts have not been receptive to these arguments. However, this judicial reluctance is not the end but the beginning. Equality illuminates important aspects of poverty that are not addressed by redistributive government policies alone.

This Memorial Lecture began in 2004 in order to honour the life work of Professor Joan Fitzpatrick, Jeffery & Susan Brotman Professor of Law, University of Washington Law School and Oxford Law Faculty Alumni.

In introducing the lecture, Dr Andrew Shacknove, Co-Director of the Oxford/George Washington University Summer Programme in International Human Rights Law described Professor Fitzpatrick as ‘one of the most principled people’ he had ever met and a person of both ‘passion and compassion’. Her work as both a scholar and an advocate covered a wide range of human rights areas and, as Dr Shacknove described, remains ‘well cited and standing the test of time’. She promoted human rights in terms of women’s rights, freedom from torture, rights in states of emergency, prisoners rights, and she played a pivotal role on the Board of Directors of Amnesty International in the 1980’s and 90’s, broadening the direction of Amnesty’s work to include, in particular, the rights of gay men and lesbians.

A more detailed list of Prof Fitzpatrick’s life work can be found here.

A copy of Professor Fredman’s paper upon which this talk was based can be found here.

This lecture given as part of the Oxford/ George Washington University Summer Programme in International Human Rights Law 

Meghan Campbell and Laura Hilly are D.Phil candidates in Law at Pembroke College and Magdalen College, Oxford University, with research interests in equality law. 

4 Responses to Mind the Gap: the Joan Fitzpatrick Memorial Lecture on Poverty and Equality delivered by Professor Sandra Fredman

  1. One of the audience members at this lecture highlighted that the NZ Human Rights Act 1993 includes ‘employment status’ as a protected status ground. It would be interesting to know whether any of our blog readers are aware of similar provisions in other jurisdictions (I understand that the Victorian government in Australia was, at one stage, considering the inclusion of ‘homelessness’ as a protected ground).

    Laura Hilly 8 August 2012 at 9:23 am Reply
  2. I am familiar with the SEE region and anti-discrimination protection across it, and there are provisions containing grounds which can be invoked in relation to poverty. Don’t count on finding much of case law to support this claim though.
    In Macedonia both the Constitution and the Anti-discrimination Law have ‘property’ (‘property status’ in the AD law), ‘social status’ as well as ‘social origin’ as protected grounds. All of these can be invoked as relevant grounds when it comes to poverty. The AD law also has ‘belonging to a marginalised group’ as a protected ground… No case law exists in relation to any of these grounds yet.
    In Albania the anti-discrimination law contains ‘economic situation’. The anti-discrimination laws of BiH and Croatia contain ‘property status’ and ‘social origin’ as protected grounds. Serbia’s Anti-discrimination Law contains ‘property status’.

    Biljana Kotevska 22 August 2012 at 12:46 pm Reply
  3. Thanks Biljana, that’s really interesting. Do you know how long those provisions have been in place for?

    Laura Hilly 24 August 2012 at 3:49 am Reply
  4. Most Anti-discrimination laws are rather recent (have been adopted within the frame of the EU approximation process). However (and this is speaking about the ex-Yugoslav republics only), non-discrimination provisions in other laws (for example, on primary education, labour law, etc) and equality provisions from the constitutions of these countries all date since the early years following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, meaning the early 90s.

    To go a bit further back – there was an equality provision in the last Constitution of SFRY stating that citizens of Yugoslavia are equal regardless of, among other grounds, social status (in literal translation ‘position in society). Also, the Constitution of the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Albania had in its equality provision ‘social position or material situation’.

    Biljana Kotevska 6 September 2012 at 2:32 am Reply

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