Legal Validity and the Moral Limits of Law

My research appraises legal techniques, modes of reasoning and institutional schemes in light of their capacity to help political communities justly advance human well-being. A major focus of my work is the riddling technique of legal validity, which lies at the heart of familiar forms of legal reasoning and institutional schemes. The technique of legal validity is a special method for changing legal duties, rights and powers across private and public law. Roughly, it involves changing duties, rights and powers by saying so.

In my monograph Legal Validity: The Fabric of Justice (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2019) I explain the nature and probe the point of this technique. This enquiry has been all but neglected in decades of theoretical emphasis on the validity of abstract rules or norms. Considering valid objects such as wills, mortgage contracts, software licences, statutes, passports or judgments, the book reveals that the ordinary idea of ‘legal validity’ is associated to a fascinating legal technique spanning diverse areas of legal regulation. And it brings out the value, and limits, of this technique as a tool to foster the reasonable self-direction of diverse individuals and groups through a sound allocation of decision-making power.

A second, shorter monograph traces the hitherto uncharted history of legal validity in Western legal thought: A Short History of Legal Validity and Invalidity: Foundations of Private and Public Law (Cambridge, Intersentia, forthcoming 2019). In the course of a 2000 year journey through landmark texts of European legal culture, the book shows that, contrary to what is often assumed, validity and invalidity originated in the domain of private transactions and only gradually came to be deployed in the domain of official power and law-making. This went hand in hand with legal thought’s acknowledgement that law-making itself can be (in)valid, because legally limited, most recently by a body of constitutionally enshrined human rights. Understanding why, not only when, the technique of validity appeared, teaches valuable lessons about the kinds of social and political transformation that this technique can help realize today.

In other published and developing work I consider the use of the thencique of legal validity in the context of particular legal regimes. The book Legislated Rights: Securing Human Rights through Legislation (Cambridge University Press, 2018), jointly authored with Grégoire Webber, Paul Yowell, Richard Ekins, Bradley Miller and Francisco Urbina, vindicates the special ability and responsibility of legislatures to provide a specification of open-needed considerations of justice invoked by human rights instruments and constitutional bills of rights. In a number of journal articles, including some of my review essays for the American Journal of Jurisprudence, I put pressure on the moral hazards of, amongst other things, law’s morally needed generality and its resort to presumptions and evidential exclusions. Such hazards, in turn, have implications for the kinds of wrongful conduct the law is fit to curb: I consider this in a draft article on how the Rule of Law places limits on the kinds of psychological harm that can rightfully be criminalized. I am also writing a critique of the widespread understanding of legal meaning on the model of communication, an exposition of an historical shift in the conception of legal power, and a reflection on how the medieval origins of the idea of a territorially-bound jurisdiction can enrich current debates on the limits of the sovereignty of nation states.