I am a member of the Oxford Law Faculty (where I am a Visiting Professor), a Senior Research Associate at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics (part of the Faculty of Philosophy), a Research Associate at the Ethox Centre (a multidisciplinary bioethics research centre within the Nuffield Department of Public Health, University of Oxford), a Research Associate at the Health, Law and Emerging Technologies Centre, (part of the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford), and an Associate at the Oxford Human Rights Hub. I am also a barrister, practising at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square (where I specialize in medical law) and a part time judge of the Crown Court (where I am authorized to try serious sexual offences) and the County Court. I joined Exeter College as a Senior Supernumerary Fellow in 2022. I was previously a Fellow of Green Templeton College.
My PhD is from the University of Cambridge for work on the way that the law handles human autonomy and dignity in medical decision-making.
My research is a search for a satisfactory legal anthropology. I am concerned that we make decisions crucially affecting human welfare without having any real idea what sort of creatures we are. In the search for answers that will do real legal work I take cross-bearings from many perspectives and disciplines, including biology (I am particularly concerned with the moral status of non-human animals and what that status can tell us about our own status), moral philosophy, epistemology, neuroethics, and theology. I have concentrated my search in the field of medical law and ethics, and have written extensively about issues such as identity and personhood, the importance and limitation of the principle of autonomy, the meaning and use of the notion of human dignity, and the use of intuitions in moral and legal reasoning.
At the Bar I have been involved in some of the key cases in medical law, including the challenge in the European Court of Human Rights to the Belgian law of euthanasia (Mortier v Belgium, 2022), the Supreme Court’s review of the requirement for court endorsement of the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment from patients in prolonged disorders of consciousness (An NHS Trust v Y, 2018), the assisted suicide litigation in the Supreme Court (Nicklinson v Ministry of Justice, 2014), and the House of Lords (Purdy v DPP, 2009); the first prosecution of a doctor under the Female Genital Mutilation Act (R v Dharmasena 2015); Kadir v Mistry (2014) (principles governing the recoverability of damages for pain, suffering and loss of amenity in cases of delayed diagnosis); CP v The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (2014) (can a child in utero be the victim of a crime for the purposes of the CICA jurisdiction?); NHS Trust A v MB (a child) and Mr and Mrs B. (2006) (attempt by NHS Trust to withdraw life-sustaining artificial ventilation from a child with Spinal Muscular Atrophy); Al Hamwi v Johnston and North West London Hospitals NHS Trust (2005) (extent of clinician’s obligation to ensure that patient had understood warning about risks of amniocentesis); Halsey v Milton Keynes NHS Trust: Steel v Joy (2004) (effect on costs of a refusal to mediate); Kataria v Essex Strategic Health Authority (2004) (meaning of ‘review’; R v Chief Constable of West Mercia ex p Jepson (2003): Judicial review of police decision not to prosecute for late abortion of a child with cleft lip/palate; Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust v As, Bs and others (2003) (who is the father where the wrong embryo is implanted into a woman as a result of an IVF mix-up? The biological father or the husband of the woman?
I also undertake medical regulatory work, and was the Chambers and Partners Professional Discipline Junior of the Year in 2011. For many years I have been recognised as a leading practitioner in the fields of professional discipline and clinical negligence in the Chambers Directory of the Bar and the Legal 500.
From 2011-2018 I was the legal adviser to the Royal College of Physicians Committee for Ethics in Medicine, and was a member of the Royal College of Physicians Working Party on oral feeding difficulties and dilemmas.
My academic collaboratoes include Jonathan Herring, Julian Savulescu, Dominic Wilkinson, Michael Parker, Tony Hope, Michael Dunn, Brenda Kelly (all Oxford); Jose Miola (Leeds); Roy Gilbar (Leicester and Netanya); Richard Huxtable (Bristol); Clayton O'Neill (Queen's, Belfast); Charles Camosy (Fordham); John Tingle (Birmingham); Suzanne Zepp (Free University of Berlin), Klaus Hoffmann-Holland (Free University of Berlin), Israel Doron (Haifa); Andrew McGee, QUT, Brisbane; Aisha Malik (Birmingham); Mirko Garasic (Roma Tre); Stamatoula Panagakou (York and Cyprus); Johanna Meijer (Leiden) and Marinos Kyriakopoulos (The Maudsley Hospital and the University of Athens).
A few recent and forthcoming academic books include Intuitively Rational (an examination of the role of intuitions in ethical and legal reasoning: with Andrew McGee, forthcoming: Springer): When humans and animals clash (a study of the law and science of human/wildlife conflict: with John Cooper: forthcoming: Taylor & Francis): Making people good: The law as a moral agent: with Jonathan Herring: Springer, 2021: Human thriving and the law: with Jonathan Herring: Springer, 2018): Identity, Personhood and the law: with Jonathan Herring: Springer, 2017: Altruism, Welfare and the law: with Jonathan Herring: Springer, 2015; Medical Law: A Very Short Introduction: OUP, 2013; Human dignity in bioethics and law: Hart, 2012: Choosing Life, Choosing Death: The tyranny of autonomy in medical law and ethics: Hart, 2009.
Recent edited books include the Routledge Handbook of Global Health Rights: with Clayton O'Neill, Jonathan Herring and John Tingle: Routledge, 2021: Depression, Law and Ethics: with Jonathan Herring, OUP, 2017: Medical Law, Ethics and Communication at a Glance: with Michael Dunn, Patrick Davey, Anna Rathmell and Helen Salisbury, Wiley Blackwell, 2016: Dementia: Law and Ethics: with Jonathan Herring and Israel Doron: Hart,2014: Medical Law Precedents, Wildy, 2010: Oral feeding difficulties and dilemmas: A guide to practicalcare, particularly towards the end of life: Royal College of Physicians, 2010 (member of working party): Regulating Health Care Quality: Legal and Professional Issues: with John Tingle and Kay Wheat: Butterworth Heinemann/Elsevier Science, 2004: Clinical Guidelines: Law, policy and practice: with John Tingle and Kay Wheat: Cavendish, 2002.
I have written a number of texts for practitioners on medical law, personal injury litigation, advocacy, drafting, confidentiality and disclosure. I am the co-author of a program for the calculation of damages in personal injury cases.
I have also written 45 book chapters, hundreds of academic and practitioner articles, and, to date, 144 blog posts, almost all of which deal with medical law and ethics. My blogs have appeared in, for instance, The Conversation and the University of Oxford Practical Ethics blog, and have an enormously wide readership.
My academic work has had considerable traction in the courtroom. Three examples:
In Re G (Children)  EWCA Civ 1233, Munby LJ noted that:
‘Herring and Foster have argued persuasively (‘Welfare means rationality, virtue and altruism’, (2012) 32 Legal Studies 480), that behind a judicial determinations of welfare there lies an essentially Aristotelian notion of the ‘good life’….. The well-being of a child cannot be assessed in isolation. Human beings live within a network of relationships. Men and women are sociable beings. (...) As Herring and Foster comment, relationships
are central to our sense and understanding of ourselves. Our characters and understandings of ourselves from the earliest days are charted by reference to our relationships with others. It is only by considering the child's network of relationships that their well-being can be properly considered. So a child's relationships, both within and without the family, are always relevant to the child's interests; often they will be determinative.’
The arguments articulated in that Legal Studies article were material to the decision in Re
G and, as the Court of Appeal acknowledged, have the potential to be widely and deeply
Munby LJ wrote a Foreword to my book Human Dignity in Bioethics and Law in which he
said, inter alia:
‘Three years ago, Charles Foster wrote an important book, Choosing Life, Choosing Death: The Tyranny of Autonomy in Medical Ethics and Law…. Now, he has written an even more significant book, Human Dignity in Bioethics and Law, which gives pride of place to dignity…. Dignity, as our author explains it, and autonomy, at least as traditionally understood in this country, stand potentially in stark conflict with each other. Can dignity trump autonomy? He asserts that it must and shows that it can. This is powerful
medicine indeed…. He asserts that since dignity is a deeper concept than autonomy, which is merely a manifestation of dignity, so where autonomy is in conflict with other second-order principles, such as justice, it is to the parent principle of dignity that we must have recourse in resolving the conflict. The argument is powerful and compelling…. Is dignity tough enough to pass the judicial assay? [Foster] asserts that it is, and, as it seems to me, succeeds in making good his case… He tests his thesis in a number of bioethical or medical contexts and, it may be thought, succeeds triumphantly in making good his thesis. We are all indebted to Charles Foster for giving us the privilege of pondering the implications of this profoundly important and, as it seems to me, ultimately convincing book....?’
Baker J, in the Oxford Shrieval Lecture 2016, noted that he approached questions of
medical ethics with trepidation ‘….conscious that this university is privileged to have a number of experts in the field. The writings of, for example, Prof Jonathan Herring and Charles Foster, amongst others, contain fascinating and sophisticated analyses of the many ethical issues that arise in these cases.’
I do a good deal of writing that would be classified as non-academic (although I don’t acknowledge any significant distinction between academic and non-academic writing). A recent example is Being a Beast, which is a New York Times Bestseller, was long-listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize (the ‘non-fiction Booker’) and the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, won the Deux Millions d’Amis literary prize (France), and the IgNobel prize for Biology in 2016.
That book, like most of my other non-academic writing, explores themes directly pertinent to my academic research (such as: Are humans special? How plastic is our identity? Can we know enough about the world to be able to make informed decisions?)
A sequel, Being a Human: Adventures in 40,000 years of consciousness (2021) examines three seismic epochs in the history of consciousness: the Upper Palaeolithic, the Neolithic and the Enlightenment.
My book The Screaming Sky (Little Toller, 2021) was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize.
Recent and forthcoming non-academic books include a novel which seeks to recruit the voices of non-humans in telling a human story (Little Brown Sea, 2022, which was longlisted for the Runciman Award), a book of short stories (The Cry of the Wild: 2023: Doubleday/Penguin) which illustrates the challenges faced by various non-human species of living alongside us, an examination of contemporary apostasy (Faiths Lost and Found (with Martyn Percy): forthcoming: Darton Longman and Todd), and an examination of the relationship between humans and domestic animals (Pets and their People: forthcoming, Bodleian Publications).
My books have been translated into many languages, including French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Czech, Spanish, Romanian, Italian, Dutch, Korean, Polish, Danish and Lithuanian.
I am currently working on a book about edge notions and edge people, to be published by Penguin, which will include a number of reflections on the role and efficacy of the law.
I contribute to many publications, including the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, the Times, and the Literary Review.
There is a complete list of publications here. Please use that page, rather than the automatically generated, incomplete and inaccurate list linked to below.
My current research students are:
Petros Panayiotou: DPhil: Displacing relational personhood: Displacing assumptions of moral status in abortion (with Professor Jonathan Herring)
Urania Chiu: DPhil: The justification for the compulsory treatment of psychiatric patients in Hong Kong (with Professor Linda Mulcahy and Dr Michael Dunn)
Karl Segnoe: DPhil: (currently suspended): Making and unmaking: From fragmented individuals to the fragmented society (with Professor Steve Rayner: Institute of Science, Innovation and Society, Department of Anthropology).
Previous research students are:
Heloise Robinson: DPhil: Is the state neutral when considering whether the lives of disabled embryos/fetuses should be ended? (with Professor John Finnis)
Pip Coore: MSt and DPhil: Should the law endorse preemptive family agreements for the provision of care for the elderly? (with Professor Jonathan Herring).
Kaiyo Konishi-Dukes: DPhil: AI music and existential anxiety (with Professor Eric Clarke)
Anne Lansink: MPhil and DPhil: Should the law recognize the dignity of non-human animals? (with Professor Jonathan Herring)
Jake Lewis: BCL: What are the philosophical presumptions in best interests determinations under the MCA and in relation to decision-making on behalf of children?