Legal Phrases: Liable, Responsible, Accountable

The terms have distinct meanings in legal English and may not always be used interchangeably.

When studying the examples, please note the collocations (or types of phrases) in which these words are typically found.

to be responsible for something

= having a job or duty of doing something and explaining your actions to somebody in a higher position

You are responsible for designing the whole project.

The captain is responsible for the safety of the ship.

The tenant is responsible for all repairs to the building.

Everything will be done to bring those responsible to justice.

to have responsibility

= a requirement to deal with something because of your job or position, so that you may be blamed if something goes wrong

The company director accepted full responsibility for the consequences of her actions.

The terrorist group claimed responsibility for the assassination of the prime minister.

It is their responsibility to ensure that the rules are enforced.

We have a moral responsibility to help these countries. to justice.

to be liable for something

= be legally responsible for something, for paying the cost of something (so the stress falls on the idea that you may have to pay for something done because of you). NOTE: we never say “legally liable”.

You will be liable for any damage caused.

The court ruled that he could not be held personally liable for his wife’s debts.

The employer was held to be vicariously liable for the actions of its employee.

The defendants were held to be jointly and severally liable.

liability for something

= the state of being legally responsible for something

The insurance company has admitted liability but the amount of damages has not yet been agreed.

Individual shareholders have limited liability for the company’s debts up to the value of their shares in the company.

He denied any liability for the damage caused.

NOTE liabilities

= the amount of money that a person or company owes, debts

The business has liabilities of €2 million.

The financial obligations entered in the balance sheet of a business enterprise are referred to as its liabilities.

be accountable for something

= be responsible for your decisions and actions and expected to explain them when you are asked to, officially responsible to the public (so the stress is put on the position that you have and duties in connection with it, very similar to “be answerable to somebody”)

Politicians are accountable to the voters.

A company’s directors are accountable to the shareholders.


= the state of being responsible for something and report to the public

There is a need for increased professional accountability.

We need to ensure accountability for decisions made.

The grammar is very similar.

be liable
FOR something
FOR doing something
TO somebody