A Study of the Legal Implications of Time Dilation in Accordance with Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity

Alexander Simmonds (Lead / Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity dictates that, as an object travels close to the speed of light, it experiences time at a slower rate than an inert observer. This is often illustrated with reference to the thought experiment, known as the ‘twin paradox’, where one twin on Earth ages at a faster rate relative to their twin who is travelling close to the speed of light. The phenomenon, known as ‘time dilation’, is also observable with respect to gravitational fields. Essentially, the closer a given subject is moving relative to the speed of light or, in the case of strong gravitational fields, the nearer the subject is to the source, the slower they will experience time relative to an inert observer. This article seeks to explore the theoretical impact of this phenomenon on a range of legal issues. For example, could astronauts on a voyage that incurs significant time dilation be bound by an Earthly statute which, by their frame of reference, has been enacted in the future? Would a contractual term guaranteeing the durability of a spacecraft part for a number of years be assessed on the basis of Earth years or years within the frame of reference of the component itself? Would custodial sentences—or detention of any kind—within the vicinity of a supermassive black hole be classified as ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’ under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights because of the potential impact that the time discrepancy would have? To answer these questions, this article examines two matters: first, the legal implications of time dilation across a range of legal areas; and second, whether or not a singular legal framework would provide a significant counterbalance to this phenomenon. Since the time dilation effect is very real, the implications for the operation of law are too. As will be shown, these implications are both practical and, in some cases, as with contract law, doctrinal too in nature. It will ultimately be concluded that time dilation has the potential in theory to disrupt many, if not all, aspects of how the law operates. This article concludes that a unified legal approach to this problem would be difficult and that the most appropriate solution would involve, inter alia, the enactment of instruments so as to enable courts to determine the correct forum conveniens temporis.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-27
Number of pages27
JournalCambridge Law Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2024


  • space law
  • computation of time
  • special relativity
  • space exploration
  • speed of light


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