Hostname: page-component-8448b6f56d-wq2xx Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-18T17:27:20.925Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 November 2007

J. W. F. Allison
Fellow of Queens' College and University Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Cambridge
Get access


The debate about distinguishing public law and private law has been wide-ranging and variously focused. It has contributed to a paradox (or contradiction) in legal thinking, described by Peter Cane in his contribution to Public Law in a Multi-Layered Constitution. On the one hand, Cane stresses that the distinction between public and private “seems alive and well”––manifest, inter alia, in judicial review procedure and the establishment of an Administrative Court in England, in EC law (demarcating the scope of directives with direct effect), in the provisions applicable to public authorities in the Human Rights Act 1998, in the “state action” doctrine of the US Supreme Court, and in the statutory demarcation of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal's jurisdiction in Australia. On the other hand, he stresses the extent of scholarly criticism of the distinction––that it is outmoded, descriptively inaccurate or normatively undesirable. In his view, the resolution of the paradox lies in recognition that “the supporters and the opponents of the public/private distinction are talking about different things”. He concludes that, for its opponents, as a result of institutional and functional hybridisation, “the distinction misrepresents the way power is distributed and exercised” but that, for its supporters, “it embodies an attractive normative theory of the way power ought to be distributed and its exercise controlled”. In his presentation of the paradox and its resolution, Cane thus brings together various views and distinctions––English, American and Australian––and suggests that a contrast between descriptive criticism and normative evaluation is crucial to understanding the public/private debate. By the breadth and inclusivity of his analysis, however, he also brings into question the desirability of unitary analytical treatment of various distinctions in various contexts, supported and opposed by people talking about “different things”.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge Law Journal and Contributors 2007

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)