Arstein-Kerslake, O’Donnell, Kayess and Watson, ‘Relational personhood: a conception of legal personhood with insights from disability rights and environmental law’

People with disability have demanded the recognition of full legal personhood in order to realise their rights and to overcome dominance and oppression. Legal personhood is also being claimed for similar reasons for natural entities, including rivers, forests, and mountains. However, the prevailing neo-liberal understanding of legal personhood relies on the individual exercising personhood independently. This may not be enough to secure the interests and realise the rights of people with disability, natural entities, or other cohorts that are not experiencing a wealth of power and privilege. In this article, we attempt to overcome centuries of (white, able-bodied, cis gender) male centric theory of legal personhood. We reject the dominant conceptions of personhood from liberal political theory that emphasise an atomistic, isolated individual making independent decisions. Instead, we argue for a different conception of legal personhood – relational personhood. We use insights from feminist theories of relational autonomy as well as the experience of disability to help us re-conceptualise personhood to embrace exercising autonomy through a collaborative process of acknowledging, interpreting and acting on an individual’s expressions of will and preference. We then apply this new conception to the recognition of legal personhood in nature and explore how natural entities can exercise their personhood via their relationships with humans – and, in particular, Indigenous Peoples, who have developed close relationships with natural entities over centuries. Our aim is to demonstrate the utility of a conception of legal personhood that encompass the reality of the interdependence of all individuals and entities.

Anna Arstein-Kerslake, Erin O’Donnell, Rosemary Kayess and Joanne Watson, Relational personhood: a conception of legal personhood with insights from disability rights and environmental law, Griffith Law Review, Published online: 3 December 2021.

First posted 2021-12-08 10:40:42

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