Rare NRF P rating awarded to Alistair Price

18 December 2017 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Supplied

At the age of nine, he told Archbishop Desmond Tutu that he planned to study law. Now Dr Alistair Price has been awarded a prestigious and extremely rare National Research Foundation P rating for his ongoing research on intersections between private law, public law and human rights.

This rating is reserved for young researchers - normally under the age of 35 - who have held a doctorate or equivalent qualification for less than five years and are considered likely to become future international leaders in their field based on exceptional potential demonstrated in their early career research. 

“I’m delighted and humbled to receive a P-rating,” says Price, an associate professor in the Department of Private Law Department at UCT. “It’s encouraging to know that experts in my field believe that I have potential to make a contribution of international significance over the course of an academic career.”

When you know, you know

Despite having had only a vague idea of what the study or practice of law entailed, Price recalls having uncanny clarity about his calling at the tender age of nine.

“I remember meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu on a school trip at the time and telling him about my plans. He laughed!”

Price stuck to his plans, completing a Bachelor of Business Science in Economics and Law in 2003, followed by an LLB in 2005, both at UCT.

From here, his studies took him to the UK, where he undertook a Bachelor of Civil Law at the University of Oxford in 2007 and his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2013. In between, Price served as a research clerk to Chief Justice Pius Langa at the Constitutional Court of South Africa. In 2014, he co-edited a collection of essays honouring the life and work of the late Chief Justice: Price & Bishop (eds) A Transformative Justice (Juta).

More recently, he’s spent time as a visiting fellow at the Max Planck Institute for International and Comparative Private Law in Hamburg, the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and the University of Toronto.

Where public law and private law intersect

During his studies and throughout his experiences in different countries and at the Constitutional Court, Price found himself fascinated by the different ways the private law of obligations could be influenced – even improved or undermined – by fundamental rights and other public-law ideas.

“Over the past half-century, many legal systems have seen private and public legal ideas starting to interact in novel ways. For example, the South African Constitution states – quite radically – that human rights may apply not only to the state (like Parliament or police), but also potentially to private parties (like employers, landlords, and landowners),” Price explains, adding that this raises a wide array of practically important and theoretically challenging questions.

A few examples of questions raised by the unique interaction of private and public law ideas in South African at the moment include when, if ever, a landowner should be obliged to accommodate the homeless given their right to access to adequate housing; whether courts should ever be empowered to rewrite contracts in order to protect the human rights of a weaker bargaining party; if is it possible for the law to protect our rights both to freedom of expression and privacy when regulating speech on social media; and, most fundamentally, whether it make any sense to say that a private individual is bound by another’s human right and vice versa.

“My work examines these sorts of practical and theoretical questions and attempts to answer them, often by contrasting South Africa’s approach with those attempted elsewhere,” says Price.

Future plans

Whilst he deeply values the opportunity academia has offered him to pursue intellectual curiosity, discover new truths, expand knowledge and disseminate that knowledge through teaching and publishing, Price admits to still feeling drawn to a career in legal practice.


“It would be an honour to serve the country as an officer of the court or a judge, for example,” says Price.

With youth, energy and ambition on his side, it’s not far-fetched to believe that Price’s career will still serve up a wealth of enriching opportunities, both in academia and practice.For the foreseeable future, however, research will remain his focus.

Entering sabbatical in the second half of 2018, Price will continue work on two big projects: a textbook on the South African Law of Delict with Anton Fagan and Helen Scott and a monograph entitled Fundamental Rights and State Negligence.The latter will compare the extent to which the law of delict (when one party commits a wrong against another) or torts in different legal systems has absorbed the distinctive responsibilities of the state to protect human rights.

Advice to up and coming academics and researchers

With the P rating setting him apart from most of his peers, Price’s achievements can certainly serve as an inspiration to other young academics.

Having made the most of international research and teaching opportunities, he believes that it’s important to engage with international leaders and other participants in one’s field, as much as and as soon as possible, if you want to make your mark.

“One learns a great deal, obviously, but one also starts to build a network of relationships and, hopefully, friends with a shared passion, which can inspire and motivate your best work,” he concludes.

For more information of Price’s work and a list of further reading, visit his profile on the Department of Private Law’s website.

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