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Private law: tort, contracts, equity and property

Where the individual and the state collide

We promote research, scholarship and engagement in these fields in their historical and modern contexts. 

Our vision

To promote a rigorous doctrinal and applied understanding of the fundamental fields of private law -  tort, contract, equity and property law - encompassing both common law and statutory law, and including interaction with related fields of law such as private international law, commercial law, public law, corporate law, intellectual property and media law.

Our work

Private law in the four fields identified above governs the property (both real and personal), the obligations and liabilities, and the rights and remedies of individuals and legal entities.

Unlike public law, which focuses on the relationship between the state and the individual or between government bodies, private law focuses on the relationships between these entities as private actors. In this context, a legal entity could be a corporation or a public body. Essentially, private law answers the questions: “What do I own and how can I use and protect it?” and “What do I owe?”

Individually and collectively our work in private law comprises teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, supervising honours and doctoral theses, research, writing articles and books, leading or contributing to federal and state government enquiries on law reform, advising and commenting in the media on current issues, providing legal education to the profession and industry groups, and speaking at national and international conferences in private law and applied and related fields.

Our impact

Private law scholarship has been acknowledged as a research strength of Sydney Law School since its inception. Over many decades, our academics have produced leading treatises on all aspects of private law. Examples include

  • Professor William Morison on tort law
  • Professor David Harland on contract law and consumer protection
  • Professor Peter Butt, now Emeritus professor, on land law
  • Emeritus Professor John Carter on contract law
  • Professor William Gummow on principles of equity. 

Our scholars are regularly invited to speak at leading international conferences and to contribute to discussion of possible changes to the law. Private law at Sydney Law School is also renowned for fostering talent in emerging scholars. Current members of the group continue the tradition of excellence in private law research and scholarship and are recognised nationally and internationally as leaders in their fields:

  • Professor Elisabeth Peden’s research focuses on implied obligations and good faith, construction and interpretation of contracts and damages and penalties. She has been an expert witness on Australian penalty law in international litigation, asked to draft legislation concerning good faith, invited to speak at various international and national conferences, and her work has been extensively cited in courts and by other academics.
  • Professor Greg Tolhust publishes extensively on contract, personal property and commercial law, with particular interests in formation and privity of contract and the assignment of contractual rights. He also has an abiding interest in the law pertaining to art, artefacts and other cultural objects. 
  • Professor Barbara McDonald’s current research and writing is focused on, first, the impact of tort reforms on the fundamental elements of negligence actions and the liability of multiple wrongdoers; and secondly, the developing law of privacy and equitable breach of confidence. Her work on privacy law led to her appointment as Commissioner leading the Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era. Her work has been cited in the High Court of Australia and other appellate courts. 
  • Professor Matthew Conaglen’s research focuses on the legal principles of fiduciary doctrine, including the nature and function of those principles and the remedies for their breach, as well as other equitable doctrines that are applied in the context of trusts.  His research has been cited by the Privy Council, the High Court of Australia, the Supreme Court of New Zealand, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal and numerous other courts around the world.
  • Professor David Rolph’s research encompasses tort law and history, with particular emphasis on the tort of defamation and the law of contempt in the context of broader discussions about freedom of speech, public interest and open justice. He is regularly invited to provide media commentary on the law and his recent work on defamation law was published to wide acclaim.
  • Professor Sheelagh McCracken’s research in applied finance focuses on the operation of personal property securities legislation, as well as on the role of equitable doctrines such as set-off, marshalling and contribution.
  • Professor John Stumbles's research focus includes the impact of statute in allocating risk in commercial law both generally and with a particular emphasis the impact of personal property and insolvency legislation. He is also interested in the operation and regulation of clearing houses and payment systems. In each of these areas, he has advised corporations, regulators and government.
  • Professor Cameron Stewart's work is focused on the private law of health regulation, in particular the use of contract, tort and equity to regulate consent, elder law and human tissue use. Professor Stewart is also co-author of one of Australia’s most read books on equity: Radan and Stewart, Principles of Australian Equity and Trusts (now in its third edition, 2016, LexisNexis). His work has been cited by the Supreme Court of NSW, the Court of Appeal of New South Wales, the High Court of Australia, the Canadian Supreme Court and the Full Court of Appeals of South Africa. His work has also been adopted in the policies of state and territory governments and non­-government organisations. He has been an expert panel member for the Victorian Parliament, the NSW Parliament, the NSW Law Reform Commission and the Australian Law Reform Commission.
  • Emeritus Professor John Carter is Australia’s leading authority on contract law. He researches and publishes treatises and articles on all aspects of contract law and related fields, with particular emphasis on contract law in a commercial context. He is the editor of the international Journal of Contract Law and his work is cited by courts of the highest level around the world.
  • Professor William Gummow, a former judge of the High Court of Australia, researches equitable doctrine in a range of contexts as well as constitutional and administrative law, aspects of legal history, and statutory interpretation.
  • Adjunct Professor Joe Campbell writes on the history of equitable doctrine and methods of reasoning in equity, and particular applications of private law doctrine in areas of practical importance to consumers, like the liability of superannuation trustees and the operation of mass-marketed insurance policies.
  • Associate Professor Fiona Burns researches property-related issues, including historical foundations and prospects of law reform. Her recent research and scholarship on reverse mortgages led to her appointment as an Expert Reader for the Australian Law Reform Commission Report 131 on Elder AbuseA National Legal Response. She was also asked to provide confidential advice to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission on reverse mortgages.
  • Associate Professor Jamie Glister is interested in all areas of trusts and equitable doctrine. He maintains a particular focus on the law relating to resulting trusts, equitable compensation and third-party liability.
  • Ms Patricia Lane’s research interests include property rights and the relationship between Indigenous and colonial law; legal interpretation in respect of private and public law instruments, and the intersection of land law and environmental and heritage laws.
  • Dr Scott Grattan's research deals with the interaction between of property law theory and the contours of property law doctrine.
  • Dr Penelope Crossley's research focuses on the law relating to the exploration, extraction, sale of natural commodities such as oil and gas. She has particular expertise in the law relating to renewable energy sources and their development and use.  This specilaised work builds on her foundational knowledge and interest in contract law, commercial and consumer law and tort law.
  • Dr John Eldridge’s research explores contract law and property law, with a particular focus on law reform and codification.
  • Dr Natalie Silver’s research focuses on the law of not-for-profit organisations, particularly the tax aspects of charitable giving. The impact of research includes contributions to scholarship in the area of not-for-profit law, and also in policy applications through reports and submissions to government.

Our experts