Over-policed and under-protected? Administrative justice, criminal justice, and positive obligations to protect “legally vulnerable” groups

This project explores the state’s legal obligations to safeguard vulnerable groups.

Two police officers stood outside wearing uniform and helmets

For the police, these obligations arise in specific situations set out in human rights case law. This requires them to protect individuals at risk from certain criminal acts, including the victims of domestic and sexual abuse, human trafficking, and forced labour.

For other state agencies, these obligations arise from legislation, such as in relation to vulnerable homeless people.

These groups could be termed “legally vulnerable”. They are classified as “vulnerable” in law, which leads to required action from public authorities. Yet by being deemed “vulnerable” they are also vulnerable to the effects of this label, such as enforced interventions and potential stigma.

This project will examine the scope and significance of such “positive obligations” to safeguard vulnerable people.


Certain groups of marginalised people are likely to encounter a range of state agencies legally mandated to respond to “vulnerability.”

The police-centric nature of the human rights duty has been critiqued for obscuring structural causes of vulnerability, which demands a more holistic response rather than its sole focus on criminal justice.

Additionally, concerns have been raised about “positive obligations” leading to the over-policing of already marginalised groups. And the police have been critical of the additional investment and expectations positive duties create.

This project will explore how responses and understanding of these “legal vulnerability” requirements work across different state sectors. It will also look at how these legal duties towards the vulnerable – both in substance and through processes of implementation – help to safeguard and alleviate vulnerability.


The project aims to understand how different public organisations respond to their “legal vulnerability” requirements and how they help safeguard ‘vulnerable’ individuals.

In the long term, the team are focused on developing research that ensures such vulnerabilities are met with a more effective response by policing and through public agencies more broadly.


This initial project is developing the basis for a long-term, mixed-methods, and interdisciplinary project. The project is focused on four core research questions:

  1. How, if at all, does “legal vulnerability” derived from human rights law find everyday form in the orientations, communications, and prioritisations within the police and how are positive obligations understood and enacted in practice by officers?
  2. How, in the policies and actions of the police and other state agencies, does “legal vulnerability” derived from human rights law relate to other legal conceptions of vulnerability found in, for example, housing or social work law?
  3. How are various forms of state power, once legally channelled towards these groups by legal obligations, perceived procedurally and substantively by the ‘legally vulnerable?’
  4. In what ways do legal duties towards the vulnerable – both in substance and through processes of implementation – help to safeguard and alleviate vulnerability?

In the initial “pilot” stage of the project, exploratory research will generate a smaller, but rich, dataset that targets research questions 1 & 2. It will use in-depth interviews with the police and local authority teams dedicated to responding to vulnerable groups.

In relation to research question 3, the team will conduct exploratory interviews with NGOs and charities that support ‘vulnerable’ groups. From this, the project team will begin to identify the issues, dilemmas, and concerns faced by “legally vulnerable” groups and map out the network across criminal and administrative justice surrounding them.


Lead investigator


  • Professor Simon Halliday, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies, Law School, University of Strathclyde
  • Dr Jed Meers, University of York
  • Dr Richard Martin, London School of Economics and Political Science
  • Dr Elizabeth Cook, University of London
  • Dr Ruth Weir, University of London
  • Angela Paul, University of York