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Legal subject

See also the discussion of legal subjectivity in our Working Paper on Text-driven Normativity.

Working definition

  1. A legal subject is an entity capable of acting in law, of having subjective rights and of having legal obligations.
  2. Most jurisdictions attribute legal subjectivity to two types of entity:
    1. Human beings, called natural persons.
    2. All other entities attributed legal subjectivity, called legal persons.
  3. A legal subject is not the same thing as either the human being or the non-human entity that is granted legal subjectivity. Instead, it is akin to an avatar that enables them to play specific role(s) in law.
    1. This means that being a legal person does not necessitate being a moral person, that is a being that is capable of acting morally.
  4. Positive law determines what entities qualify as legal subjects.
    1. In current constitutional democracies, natural persons have full legal subjectivity (in all domains of law).
    2. Legal persons have restricted legal subjectivity, as defined by the relevant positive law.
  5. In principle non-humans can be attributed legal personhood by a legislator, e.g. corporations, associations, but also animals or artificial agents.
  6. In most jurisdictions the following entities are given legal personhood:
    1. The state (federal and sub-federal level), public bodies such as cities, regions.
    2. International organisations.
    3. NGOs
    4. Corporations (various types)
    5. Associations, foundations, charities
  7. Legal subjects may have limited capacity, as defined by positive law, e.g.
    1. Minors may not enter contracts, unless authorised by their parents
    2. A minor may not be liable under tort law, though their parents may be liable instead
    3. A corporation may be able to conclude contracts and be held liable under private law, but may not be punishable under criminal law (this depends on jurisdiction)
    4. A natural person may be placed under guardianship in case of mental incapacity, in which case they cannot perform juridical acts
  8. A legal person will necessarily require representation by one or more natural persons to act in law, to exercise their standing in court, to exercise their rights and fulfil their legal obligations.
  9. Legal personhood is restricted to the remit defined by the legislator or the courts. Which means they are not necessarily entitled to human rights:
    1. The European Court of Human Rights has e.g. decided that corporations may have a restricted right to privacy.

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This page was last updated on 13 July 2021.