A legal person, also called juridical person or juristic person, is a legal entity through which the law allows a group of natural persons to act as if they were a single composite individual for certain purposes, or in some jurisdictions, for a single person to have a separate legal personality other than their own. This legal fiction does not mean these entities are human beings, but rather means that the law allows them to act as persons for certain limited purposes—most commonly lawsuits, property ownership, and contracts. This concept is separate from and should not be confused with limited liability or the joint stock principle. Also note that basic rights (like the rights to free speech and due process of law) do not necessarily follow from legal personhood. A legal person is sometimes called an artificial person or legal entity (although the latter is sometimes understood to include natural persons as well). Although the concept of a legal person is more central to Western law in both common law and civil law countries, it is also found in virtually every legal system.
In England and the United States, the use of this terminology does not mean that legal persons are considered human beings. It is simply a "technical legal meaning" in which "a 'person' is any subject of legal rights and duties. Because these entities may have legal rights and duties, they are considered 'legal persons' to distinguish them from natural persons.
Legal personality refers to the ability of an organization to enter into legal transactions such as holding property or entering into debt. Some examples of legal persons include:
Not all organizations have legal personhood. For example, the board of directors of a corporation, legislature, or governmental agency typically are not legal persons in that they have no ability to exercise legal rights independent of the corporation or political body which they are a part of. One consequence of this is that lawsuits against a government agency typically are not directed at that agency but rather at a particular person within that agency that exercises governmental authority.
In the common law tradition, only a person could sue or be sued. This was not a problem in the era before the Industrial Revolution, when the typical business venture was either a sole proprietorship or partnership—the owners were simply liable for the debts of the business. A feature of the corporation, however, is that the owners/shareholders enjoyed limited liability—the owners were not liable for the debts of the company. Thus, when a corporation breached a contract or broke a law, there was no remedy, because limited liability protected the owners and the corporation wasn't a legal person subject to the law. There was no accountability for corporate wrong-doing.
To resolve the issue, the legal personality of a corporation was established to include five legal rights -- the right to a common treasury or chest (including the right to own property), the right to a corporate seal (i.e., the right to make and sign contracts), the right to sue and be sued (to enforce contracts), the right to hire agents (employees) and the right to make by-laws (self-governance).
Since the 1800s, legal personhood has been further construed to make it a citizen, resident, or domiciliary of a state (usually for purposes of personal jurisdiction). In Louisville, C. & C.R. Co. v. Letson, 2 How. 497, 558, 11 L.Ed. 353 (1844), the U.S. Supreme Court held that for the purposes of the case at hand, a corporation is “capable of being treated as a citizen of [the State which created it], as much as a natural person.” Ten years later, they reaffirmed the result of Letson, though on the somewhat different theory that “those who use the corporate name, and exercise the faculties conferred by it,” should be presumed conclusively to be citizens of the corporation's State of incorporation. Marshall v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 16 How. 314, 329, 14 L.Ed. 953 (1854). These concepts have been superseded by statute, since U.S. jurisdictional statutes specifically address the domicile of corporations.
There are limitations to the legal recognition of legal persons. Legal entities cannot marry, they usually cannot vote or hold public office, and in most jurisdictions there are certain positions which they cannot occupy. The extent to which a legal entity can commit a crime varies from country to country. Certain countries prohibit a legal entity from holding human rights; other countries permit artificial persons to enjoy certain protections from the state that are traditionally described as human rights.
Special rules related to legal persons in relation to the law of defamation. Defamation is the area of law in which a person's reputation has been unlawfully damaged. This is considered an ill in itself in regard to natural person, but a legal person is required to show actual or likely monetary loss before a suit for defamation will succeed.
In part based on the principle that legal persons are simply organizations of human individuals, and in part based on the history of statutory interpretation of the word "person," the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that certain constitutional rights protect legal persons (like corporations and other organizations). Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad is sometimes cited for this finding, because the court reporter's comments included a statement the Chief Justice made before oral arguments began, telling the attorneys during pre-trial that "the court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does." Later opinions misinterpreted these pre-argument comments as part of the legal decision. As a result, because of the First Amendment, Congress can't make a law restricting the free speech of a corporation, a political action group or dictating the coverage of a local newspaper. Because of the Due Process Clause, a state government can't take the property of a corporation without using due process of law and providing just compensation. These protections apply to all legal entities, not just corporations.
Article 19, Paragraph 5 of the Basic Law declares: "The basic rights shall also apply to domestic artificial persons to the extent that the nature of such rights permits.
For a typical example of the concept of legal person in a civil law jurisdiction, under the General Principles of Civil Law of the People's Republic of China, "[j]uristic persons are organs which possess the capacity for civil rights and the capacity for civil activity, and in accordance with the law, independently enjoy civil rights and undertake civil obligations. Note however that the term civil right means something altogether different in civil law jurisdictions than in common law jurisdictions.
In part as a matter of subsequent interpretations of the word "person" in the Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. courts have extended certain constitutional protections to corporations. Opponents of "corporate personhood" don't necessarily want to eliminate legal entities, but do want to limit these rights to those provided by state constitutions through constitutional amendment. Often, this is motivated by a desire to restrict the political speech and donations of corporations, interest groups, lobbyists, and political parties. Social commentator Thom Hartmann is among those that share this view. Because legal persons have limited "free speech" rights, legislation meant to eliminate campaign contributions by legal persons (notably, corporations and labor unions) has been repeatedly struck down by various courts.