The Justice in Unjust Enrichment

Osgoode Hall Law Journal, 51:3 (2014)

30 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2014

See all articles by Dan Priel

Dan Priel

York University - Osgoode Hall Law School

Date Written: January 21, 2014


The question of what justice has to do with the law of unjust enrichment (if it has anything to do with it at all) has in recent years come to occupy scholars who sought to explain the theoretical foundations of this area of law and its relationship with other branches of private law. A popular answer has been that the law of unjust enrichment, like the rest of private law, instantiates the norms of corrective justice. In this essay I argue that this is not the case in two distinct senses. First, even on its own corrective justice does not provide a satisfactory grounding for this area of law (or, for that matter, for other branches of private law). Second, parts of the law of unjust enrichment are explained by competing notions of justice. I consider some of them in this essay and I show that what all of them have in common is that they are grounded in considerations of distributive justice or that they are part of a political theory. In the concluding sections of the essay I offer a way of reconciling these political/distributive foundations of unjust enrichment law with private law’s seeming indifference to such considerations. I do this by calling attention to the institutional constraints that courts operate under. I argue that while such constraints are essential for understanding private law adjudication, they lead to practical implications quite different from those suggested by corrective justice theorists.

Keywords: unjust enrichment, restitution, corrective justice, fairness

Suggested Citation

Priel, Dan, The Justice in Unjust Enrichment (January 21, 2014). Osgoode Hall Law Journal, 51:3 (2014). Available at SSRN:

Dan Priel (Contact Author)

York University - Osgoode Hall Law School ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

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