16 Dec 2016
What is Private Law For? On Choice, Empowerment and Protection

A MEPLI Round Table Conference, Maastricht University 16 December 2016

Albert Camus famously wrote that ‘life is the sum of all your choices.’ Private lawyers could not agree more. At the core of private law lies the idea that individuals are allowed to know better than the State or anyone else what suits their needs and interests and to act accordingly. People may decide for themselves to contract, to dispose of their property before or after death, to start a family, to claim compensation for other people’s unlawful conduct, or to refrain from any of this. At the same time, private law balances individual autonomy with countervailing considerations that differ from one subfield to another. Concerns of distributive justice and protection of third parties seem prevalent in the law of property, while contract, family and succession law seem highly influenced by the wish to protect allegedly weaker parties and vulnerable family members. Tort law allows the wronged person to be restored in the position he was in prior to the wrong.


This Round Table conference explores the limits of, and justification for, the exercise of private autonomy in five main fields of private law: the law of contract, tort, property, succession and family relationships. This not only allows a much-needed intra-disciplinary account of how private autonomy works out throughout the whole of private law, it also connects grand theories on the goals of private law with legal doctrine. Does it make a difference for the role to be attached to choice whether private law is there to protect rights, pursue distributive justice, guide people’s behaviour or empower people? In short: what is it that private law is for?


This Round Table coincides with the publication of Elgar Advanced Introduction to Private Law by Jan Smits