Supporting Personhood: An Examination of the Evolving Relationship Between the Legal Person and the State

The past decade has seen substantive shifts in the recognition of what constitutes legal personhood, the relationship between legal persons and human persons, and the role of the state in enabling personhood. There has been a transition across multiple fields of law, as the obligations on the state have shifted from non-interference in personhood, to active support and enabling of personhood. In disability contexts, international law now requires the state to support decision-making and agency of all people with disabilities. In environment law, rivers and other natural objects have been recognised as legal persons with specific rights, although highly varying levels of state support and increasing tensions between legal subjects and legal objects.

Whanganui river (pictured) in Aotearoa New Zealand, was granted legal personhood in 2017.

What do these new obligations say about the role of the state in enabling personhood? How is law evolving to both recognise new persons as well as enable their full agency? Does this re-framing also re-insert the power of the state, or does it harness this power to support vulnerable persons? This increasing emphasis on the obligations of the state provides a new way to imagine and envision the role of the state, as well as reconnecting ‘rights talk’ to a meaningful discussion of obligations, particularly in the context of vulnerability.

This workshop will begin a conversation across multiple areas of law around the theme of personhood and the obligations of the state. It will focus on bringing together scholars within Australia with select international guests from Aotearoa New Zealand, in order to first develop the discussion within the local context. The aim will be to expand the discussion to include more international scholars in a larger event in the second half of 2020. The outcome from the workshop will be a special issue of a law journal (e.g. Law in Context) in which the various developments in State support for legal personhood are explored and conclusions are made regarding the wider implications for law and legal theory.

While workshop presenters are determined by invitation, non-presenting participants are also welcome to attend. If you are interested in attending as a non-presenting participant, please RSVP to


Confirmed speakers

  • Disability: Rosemary Kayes (UNSW); Jo Watson (Deakin); Piers Gooding (MLS) discussant
  • Environment: Alessandro Pelizzon (SCU); Liz Macpherson (University of Canterbury); Afshin Akhtar-Khavari (QUT) discussant
  • Indigenous: Katie O’Bryan (Monash); Anne Poelina (CDU); Kirsty Gover (MLS) discussant
  • Theory: Ngaire Naffine (Adelaide); Laura Griffin (Latrobe); Lee Godden (MLS) discussant


  • Legal theory of personhood
  • Relationship between State and legal person
  • Disability law
  • Environmental law
  • Indigenous rights