Gabrielle Watson

Gabrielle WatsonPlease tell us about your background.

I grew up in Falkirk, Scotland. The town is host to the largest equine sculptures in the world, The Kelpies. Standing 30 metres high, they depict the shape-changing aquatic spirits of Scottish legend. Miniature versions of Falkirk’s Kelpies exist – 1:10 scale maquettes – and they are well travelled, having been on display in cities including New York, London, and Milan.

I attended the local state school in Falkirk and then studied Law at the University of Edinburgh as the first in my family to pursue higher education. Meanwhile, my sister, Natasha, began formal training to become a classical ballerina – two very different career options!


What led you to a career in academia?

As an undergraduate, I recognised the value of doctrinal legal analysis, but was keen to move beyond it. Too often – and much to the dismay of my tutors – I would drift, uninvited, into normative critiques of the law itself. Later, while shadowing members of the profession, I preferred to reflect on the court process itself – and the legal and moral principles according to which it sought to operate – over technical points of law.

As my intellectual interests developed, my tutors at Edinburgh nurtured them, and opened up the possibility of an academic career to me. Crucially, they gave me that nudge to take up my place at Oxford. My original plan was to stay for nine months! But I went on to read for the DPhil and was subsequently fortunate to hold a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in the Faculty of Law and Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Law at Christ Church. Since 2019, I have been the Shaw Foundation Fellow in Law at Lincoln College.


What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas?

My early reluctance to commit fully to doctrinal legal analysis prompted me to experiment at the margins of law. Now, my academic interests lie at the intersection of Criminal Law, Criminal Justice, and Jurisprudence.

My first book, Respect and Criminal Justice, was published in 2020 by Oxford University Press. The book is the product of a broader interest in moral values and their implications for criminal law and justice, where such values are elusive but of persisting significance. This work is ambitious, and I spend a great deal of time boundary-drawing in order to render it manageable. It is nonetheless exciting to me because, if done well, it has the capacity to appeal to a wide audience and set up dialogues between scholars working in sub-fields that are traditionally kept apart.


What are you working on at the moment?

My long-term project is a second book entitled Just Words? Ethics and the Language of Criminal Justice. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, it charts the shift towards an ethical vocabulary in criminal justice in recent decades, and examines how terms such as ‘fairness’, ‘humanity’, ‘hope’, ‘decency’, ‘dignity’, and ‘justice’ shape the process of calling individuals to account for their alleged wrongdoing.

I am also involved in a project led by Julian V Roberts (Oxford) and Jesper Ryberg (Denmark) on the ethics of pleading guilty in the criminal court. On the one hand, the guilty plea is a gesture of contrition and a public acceptance of legal responsibility. On the other hand, it is a strategic tool for some defendants wishing to secure a plea-based sentencing discount despite their factual innocence. The guilty plea, then, is a curious object of study since it can generate quite contradictory sentiments, where we might at once morally approve and morally object to its existence.


What is your favourite place to visit in the world?

The Turks and Caicos Islands, two groups of tropical islands in the Lucayan Archipelago of the Atlantic Ocean and northern West Indies – an impossibly serene corner of the world. I was privileged to spend time there in 2019.


What charity do you support and why?

I support BookTrust, a UK charity whose aim is to spark in children a lasting love of reading. I support BookTrust because I believe in the transformative power of education and admire the charity’s commitment to delivering free books to the most disadvantaged children in our communities.

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