Deservingness on Trial: Neutralisation Techniques in Public Housing Jurisprudence

Yael Cohen-Rimer*, Netanel Dagan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How do judges formulate their written decisions when rejecting plaintiffs’ requests in a welfare context? In this paper, based on our thematic analysis, we show how judges construct a nuanced concept of ‘welfare deservingness’ to narratively mitigate their own moral and emotional tensions when making decisions on remedies in public-housing cases. Deploying a notion borrowed from criminology—‘neutralisation techniques’—we discuss the material and symbolic implications of this concept, contributing to the theoretical discussion of both poverty law and legal professionalism. We claim that judges use ‘neutralisation techniques’ to negotiate, justify, and explain their decisions while attempting to avoid or lessen the dilemmas they typically face, given the scarcity of housing resources and their inability to grant material assistance. Employing these techniques, the judges create ‘deservingness spectrum’ that enables them to essentially subvert the binary division of accepted/denied cases. At one end of this spectrum, the denial of the plaintiff's ‘victim’ status is enacted through the negation of symbolic deservingness and, thus, the denial of housing is framed as a warranted sanction on the plaintiff's reproachable character. At the other end, the techniques allow the judges to recognise ‘symbolic deservingness’ while still not providing material aid. Judges are therefore able to preserve their professional status and sense of moral rectitude when making such unenviable housing decisions. More broadly, our analysis offers a novel lens through which to critically understand judicial decision-making in welfare jurisprudence.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)540-561
Number of pages22
JournalSocial and Legal Studies
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2022.


  • deservingness
  • judicial decision-making
  • judicial justification
  • neutralisation techniques
  • poverty
  • public housing
  • symbolic remedy
  • welfare


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