My understanding is lawful is the spirit of the law and legal is the letter of the law. Is this correct? If so then if you have to break the letter of the law to fulfill the spirit of the law would that be a case of something being lawful and illegal?

Possible example, traffic violations. Speeding is always illegal but as far as I know judges and police give drivers a break if they are the only car on the road, or if everyone is driving their cars in a safe orderly manner matter despite driving ten miles the speed limit.


1 Answer 1


In most usages the terms "lawful" and "legal" have pretty much the same meaning, and when 'lawful" is used in a legal context, it normally means 'in compliance with the law", and has nothing much to do with the "spirit" of the law.

It is true that sometimes officials (including police, prosecutors, and judges) will chose to take no action on, or treat as less serious, a technical violation of the law which neither did no risked harm.

By the way it is not true that "Speeding is always illegal". In some jurisdictions if the driving is "reasonable and prudent" under the then current conditions, it is legal even if over the posted limit. In many jurisdictions, exceeding the posted limit is normally illegal. But even there someone breaking the limit during an emergency when such speed is needed to save life may not be committing an illegal act.

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