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Law and Humanities Seminar: Discretion and the Rule of Law: The Significance and Endurance of Vagrancy and Vagrancy-Type Laws in England, the British Empire, and the British Colonial World

Date & Time: March 25, 2024 (Monday), 12:15 PM–1:30 PM (Beijing time)

Speaker: Christopher Roberts, Assistant Professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law

Moderator: Prof. Norman P. Ho, Peking University School of Transnational Law

Location: STL Building 207

Zoom Meeting ID: 827 0831 6985 (Passcode: 686494)

Language: English

Lecture Summary: This seminar will explore the history of vagrancy laws in England, the British Empire, and the British colonial world, the significance of those laws, the various challenges that were made to vagrancy laws in the twentieth century, and the limits of those challenges to date. While vagrancy laws preceded the nineteenth century, the 1824 Vagrancy Act in England set a new model, which proved extremely influential around the world over the following centuries. Between the early nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, vagrancy laws were adopted or reformulated almost everywhere the British left a footprint. In addition to serving a broad range of more specific functions, vagrancy laws served as a practical and rhetorical means through which the discretionary power of the authorities, as enforced through the police and magistracy, was expanded. Far from constituting an object of challenge for initial ‘rule of law’ advocates, expansion in such discretionary authority was closely bound up with the expansion of the rule of law in theory and practice. In the twentieth century however that understanding was reversed, leading to multiple waves of challenges against vagrancy laws, though with limited results in practice.

Speaker's bio: Professor Roberts’ research focuses on the historical evolution of public order legality in Britain, the British Empire and the British settler colonial world and on the transnational and international evolution of ideas of human and workers’ rights in the early to mid-twentieth century, among other themes. He is the author of Alternative Approaches to Human Rights, published by Cambridge University Press in 2022, as well as publications in numerous international and comparative law journals. Professor Roberts is the Chair of the Transnational Legal History Group, housed with the Centre for Comparative and Transnational Law within the Law Faculty of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In addition to his academic work, Professor Roberts has worked as an expert legal consultant with numerous intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations.

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