Poor people's rights and successful legal actions (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report)



Please provide case studies of how poor people, or civil society acting on their behalf, have successfully claimed their human rights through legal mechanisms. The case studies should describe the legal actions successfully taken on a rights issue (as used in combination with other types of social mobilisation), and the short- and long-term impact these actions have had for poor people on the issue considered. Cases should focus on hard law mechanisms. If possible, the cases should cover a range of human rights and a broad geographical scope, with cases on sub-Saharan Africa and Asia focused on human rights claims at the national level.

Key findings

Landmark rulings by South Africa’s Constitutional Court in favour of poor people’s social and economic rights since the 1990s have drawn widespread attention to the law as a tool for realising poor people’s rights and tackling the underlying systemic problems in a way that empowers individuals and communities. But while there has been broad support for using the law to implement poor people’s rights, there have also been debates and doubts about the actual impact of such practices, even when courts have given a positive ruling. This is important especially given the heavy investment of funds, time and skills legal action can require.

This helpdesk report focuses on hard law, national level legal mechanisms, and economic, social and cultural rights in relation to poverty. The three cases from India, Brazil and Mexico documented here were selected based on the availability of strong literature, and on diversity with regard to the human rights and legal systems covered.

The report presents a general overview of the literature on poor people’s rights claims. The following sections present the three cases studied:

  • the right to food in India;
  • the right to health in Brazil;
  • sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico.

The first part of each case study describes the issue and mobilisations, and then summarises the legal action taken in the specific case(s) considered. The second part addresses the impact of the successful legal action, with regard to both immediate and further effects.


Combaz, E. Poor people’s rights and successful legal actions (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report). Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK (2013) 14 pp.

Poor people’s rights and successful legal actions (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report)

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