New Books Network

Nicola Lacey

In Search of Criminal Responsibility

Ideas, Interests, and Institutions

Oxford University Press 2016

New Books in Intellectual HistoryNew Books in LawNew Books in Politics & Society April 20, 2020 Jane Richards

In her latest book, In Search of Criminal Responsibility: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions (Oxford University Press, 2016), Nicola Lacey brings together philosophical, historical and...

In her latest book, In Search of Criminal Responsibility: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions (Oxford University Press, 2016), Nicola Lacey brings together philosophical, historical and socio-legal methods to give an account of the ever changing notion of responsibility in criminal law. She distinguishes between ideas of responsibility, which she argues are founded in notions of character, psychological capacity, the causation of harmful outcomes and the presentation of risk. The book draws links between these ideas of responsibility; of the institutions that produce them, and the interests that have shaped both doctrines and institutions.

In her analysis of responsibility over time, Nicola demonstrates the functions that criminal law and punishment have been required to perform at different periods in history. Criminal law has moved from notions of character and outcome responsibility in the eighteenth century, through a period dominated by capacity responsibility, which has become established as central in criminal law. More recently, character responsibility is remerging, in combination with a new discourse that is founded in risk.

In this discussion, as in her book, Nicola Lacey builds on her previous analysis in Women, Crime and Character (2008) and traces how the criminal law and the notion of responsibility has been gendered throughout history. Responsibility is contextualized in its role as to how it provides legitimation of state power, and also in its role for coordination of social behavior. Responsibility, and the criminal law more broadly, is historically, socially and politically contextualized in terms of practices of criminalization and the social functions that law plays.


Jane Richards is a doctoral candidate in Human Rights Law at the University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include disability, equality and criminal law. You can find her on twitter @JaneRichardsHK where she avidly follows the Hong Kong protests.