Known Unknowns: Legal Responses to Intractable Uncertainties

23 April 2021, 9.00 AM - 23 April 2021, 5.00 PM

Online event via Zoom

This SLS-funded symposium, hosted by the Centre for Law and History Research, will investigate, from a comparative historical perspective, the ways in which the law frames and responds to problems of intractable factual uncertainty.

Where our ordinary evidential rules simply cannot produce a satisfactory answer to a factual question, the substantive law must choose how to proceed. This might, for example, involve the creation of tiebreaking or default rules to resolve the impasse.

The symposium will bring together papers on diverse areas across private law as we seek 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.

Register for your free ticket via Eventbrite - registration closes 2 April 2021.

"Our symposium will investigate how different legal systems have understood and responded to the problem of intractable factual uncertainty. By analysing a range of approaches to this problem, we can better equip the law to respond to new uncertainties in today’s ever-changing world." - Dr Joanna McCunn

Preliminary timetable

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 LondonKnown 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

Contact information

For further information or enquiries, please contact the event organisers, Andrew J Bell ( and Joanna McCunn (

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