The centrepiece of our research work on ‘Known Unknowns’ was a free-to-attend research symposium hosted by the Centre for Law and History Research at the University of Bristol (UK). The event was generously funded by the Society of Legal Scholars’ Small Projects and Events Fund. Due to the prevailing public health circumstances in 2020/21, this had to be postponed slightly and moved online, but we were delighted to be able to hold the event virtually on 23 April 2021.

The event brought together papers from our various contributors on diverse areas across private law as we sought to identify trends and inconsistencies in legal approaches to uncertainty, with a view to understanding the past and guiding the law’s future development in our increasingly complex societies. These papers were organised across four panels and bookended by our introductory and concluding comparative talks as organisers. In Panels One to Three, each paper focused on a particular instance of intractable uncertainty faced by private law, covering a wide range of doctrinal areas, analytical concepts, and temporal perspectives. The papers in Panel Four provided further context to the preceding discussion.

Included in each panel was a longer period of discussion among contributors and with the audience. We were very pleased that this audience was a mixed and international one, whose comments and questions drew out interesting points of analysis and comparison in and between the papers.

A further report of the event, and some of the ideas which were prominent in the discussions, is available here.


09.00-09.15: Opening Remarks

09.15-10.30: Panel One: Birth and Death

  • Gwen Seabourne, University of Bristol: ‘In the beginning’: ‘unknowns’ at the start of life
  • Andrew J. Bell, Institute for European Tort Law: Commorientes: deaths, disasters, disappearances

10.30-11.00: Break

11.00-12.15: Panel Two: Causation and Loss

  • Ken Oliphant, University of Bristol: Causal uncertainty: the special case of mesothelioma
  • Judith Skillen, University of Nottingham: Known unknowns – loss of a chance
  • Emily Gordon, University of Cambridge: Damages for future pecuniary losses: calculating the unknowable

12.15-13.30: Lunch

13.30-14.45: Panel Three: Meanings and Intentions

  • Astron Douglas and Lorenzo Maniscalco, University of Cambridge: Mixed monies in bank accounts
  • David Foster, University College London: Known unknowns in the interpretation of wills: testamentary devises in the common law world, c. 1750 – 1840
  • Joanna McCunn, University of Bristol: Contractual interpretation and ad hominem rules of construction

14.45-15.15: Break

15.15-16.15: Panel Four: Wider Perspectives on Unknowns and Uncertainty

  • Matthew Dyson, University of Oxford: The spectrum of factual and legal uncertainty in criminal law
  • David Ibbetson, University of Cambridge: The unknown in Roman law

16.15-17.00: Comparative Remarks