As I understand, in general, not knowing the law does not excuse violating it.

That should apply to most if not all jurisdictions in most cases with very few exceptions.

From personal experience, never in my life has school, family or anyone ever actually taught me any laws or showed me where I could consult them myself, and I have already reached legal age a couple of years ago.

So my question is, who, by law or morality, is supposed to teach citizens the law so that they can be aware and abide by it?

Answers can be generalized to include most jurisdictions or be specific.

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    I wish I learned about law, personal finance, how to cook and how to drive at school. Instead, I learned a lot about triangles...
    – Bad_Bishop
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 9:06
  • 9
    @Bad_Bishop Clearly the educational system is wrong ("in my opinion") like many others systems. But for future comments, if any, lets avoid making a moderator have to move them to a chat like I usually see in hot network questions. Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 9:15
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    This is very much an issue. See mic.com/articles/86797/… for some examples of US laws that can catch people in everyday life. OK, so maybe some of these are merely disproportionate penalties in obviously gray areas (e.g. fibbing to a federal park ranger) and in others the real life cases ended in acquittal. OTOH modern civilisation is genuinely big, complicated and powerful, so the laws tend to match. Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 13:52
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    @mustaccio I decided it was better to not specify a location so that it was open for people to answer either in general or about the places they know of, since why that last phrase is there. That way I also learn the perspective of other places and not restrict it to my area which would probably get me and everyone less useful information. For example, you can develop an answer about your place where the subjects are indeed taught at school. Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 16:20
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    @mustaccio Read my answer. Even English EWCA judges didn't know the law, and they learned more than the basics. And Knowing basics isn't enough. And many people can't afford lawyers.
    – user89
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 0:52

5 Answers 5


The answer from @user6726 is a good one. But, I'd like to add to it by pointing out that the body of law applicable to an individual is usually much, much smaller than the entire body of law. I'm a lawyer who has been in private practice for almost 25 years with an extremely diverse practice compared to the average lawyer, and I've never even looked at perhaps 80% of the laws on the books in the states where I practice, and even less elsewhere.

By statutory and regulatory volume, the vast majority of statutory and regulatory law is applicable to either the internal operations of government, or to the way in which regulated industries and business transactions are conducted. And, it is customary for people in situations in all of those situations to have professional intermediaries such as lawyers, realtors, brokers, architects, general contractors, accountants, tax preparers, and consultants to assist them in complying.

Some of the more technical areas encountered by average people (e.g. traffic laws) are areas in which training is mandated before you can get a driver's license.

Many other areas of occupational and industry regulations are similarly distinguished by having a licensing requirement to make sure that everyone involved knows that a new body of law applies to them. You only need to know about nuclear power plant regulations, for example, if you build a nuclear power plant and will soon learn if you try to do so that you need a license to do that.

Even within areas of law that have broad applicability like tax law and criminal law, a lot of the law has only narrow application. For example, most people don't need to know the rules for determining the taxable income of a life insurance company, or the criminal laws pertaining to people who have security clearances to review top secret national security information.

The body of "private law" governing the rights of individuals vis-a-vis other private individuals, and of criminal law that an ordinary person is in a position to violate, is very modest. And much of the law in this area is devoted to determining how serious an offense is and what the penalty should be, and what law enforcement is allowed to do in order to investigate these violations, and not to what is legal and illegal in some regard.

For example, intentionally, recklessly or negligently offensively touching or causing injury to someone else's property or person, is almost always either a crime and/or a civil wrong called a tort for which you can be sued. Some versions of this conduct are more serious (e.g. rape or murder), some are less serious (e.g. pinching someone on Saint Patrick's Day for not wearing green). But the overriding concept, once you strip away the details, is pretty simple.

Likewise, damaging or taking property that isn't yours, intentionally, recklessly or negligently, is almost always either a crime and/or a civil wrong called a tort for which you can be sued.

Add the notion that you have to honor your promises in most circumstances and shouldn't lie or deceive in most circumstances, you have to follow authoritative signs and directions from legal authorities, and you have to figure out if you owe income taxes or not each year with professional help, if necessary, and you are well on your way to knowing what you need to know to obey the law.

Even within "private law" there are lots of areas like patent law, product liability law, and oil and gas property rights, that the average person doesn't need to know. Knowing that if you are injured by someone else you should think about talking to a lawyer is usually good enough.

These bare bones may prevent you from doing things that are legal close to the boundaries of what is allowed sometimes, but having standards higher than the bare legal minimum is rarely a deep impediment to living a decent life. It should also be enough to let you have some intuition that you are in a gray area and need to confer if you aren't sure if something is illegal or not.

There are more complicated areas that many average individuals do have to deal with to some extent. The law governing privacy, copyright and speech comes to mind, for example. But, you can go a very long way on some very basic principles. Most law that applies to ordinary people flows from simple moral intuition.

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    then again, even laws applicable to private citizens are frequently far from obvious. E.g. if I own a few acres of land that has a pond on it containing fish, I am legally required (at least here) to apply for a license from the government to go fishing there, when common sense would have me believe that I wouldn't need any such license.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 5:28
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    @user1589188 plenty of laws do indeed provide for leniency for first offenses. Indeed, there is also plenty of law where ignorance is in fact a defense. It is entirely up to those who make law to reflect on how the law may end up being applied and considering if the outcomes that would result are satisfactory. That may result in the inclusion of exceptions, or the creation of public information campaigns, or more likely both.
    – Will
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 9:43
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    I think this is a very optimistic view. I find that the amount of laws that apply to the individual at one level or another is extremely broad in many western democracies. The amount does go down somewhat the poorer you are, but even then I doubt most people are cognizant of the restrictions and responsibilities they have. A lot of that law is unenforced or enforced leniently but that doesn't make it not exist.
    – DRF
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 10:49
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    @DRF not at all. If you are active in an area of practice, it's on you to learn and know the law in that area of practice. e.g. boating or owning a gun. If you were taught "thou shalt not steal", and your secular education trains that stealing is wrong, that is your cue that if you are doing something marginal, like taking your son's car without permission, that you need to go research the law in that area. Or not do the questionable thing. Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 12:40
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    "If you are active in an area of practice, it's on you to learn and know the law in that area of practice. e.g. boating or owning a gun." You're wrong to assume it's straight forward "to learn and know the law in that area of practice". See my answer.
    – user89
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 23:15

This is a difficult question in the philosophy of law, which in some views of what "law" is, is outside the scope of law (that's the view that "the law is whatever is enacted by the government" perspective). In what is generally known as the natural law perspective, "what the law is" flows from general moral principles, so you would know that murder is wrong, and therefore that murder is against the law. "Society" generally teaches you the difference between right and wrong, and the specific details then devolve into largely irrelevant specifics (family? church? school?). The short article "Eight ways to fail to make law" is a classical example of this perspective.

There are two problems with this perspective (which I adopt). One is that there are laws that you could never figure out existed in a million years based only on moral principles – often the natural law response is "there should be no such law". A second related problem is that there are specifics of laws which are not deducible from the natural law perspective. For example, "copyright" is an instance of the general concept "property", so you should know that taking someone's intellectual property without permission is wrong. But you don't know whether that property right is perpetual, or does it expire (is the hammer still protected by patent?), and if so, when. You do not know if you are allowed to quote a demagogue's political rhetoric as evidence that the individual is a dangerous crank, since that might be copyright violation and would require his permission to copy (unless you know about "fair use" or similar concepts).

By law, nobody is required to teach you what the law is, in fact it is impossible for you to know with certainty what the law is. Society "ought" to teach you what the law is, but is your 7th grade teacher really competent to teach you the theory of torts? Law SE is one example of how a person could learn what the law is, and honestly, I think it is one of the best ways to learn what the law is (excluding the option of going to law school, or reading everything you can find about the law).

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    Law SE is one example of how a person could learn what the law is, and honestly, I think it is one of the best ways to learn what the law is (excluding the option of going to law school, or reading everything you can find about the law). Like with most things, the best way to learn is practice. So Law.SE, law school, reading everything about law will increase the knowledge. Like playing the piano, you won't learn how to play until you play, and play, and play even more. Practice makes perfect. Law is no exception. You have to "keep playing" to learn it.
    – kiradotee
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 18:08
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    @kiradotee How do you "keep playing" the law? Mooting? Answer problem questions? Write practice essays? Do past law school exams?
    – user89
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 22:20
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    @Ghreu: how about: start by reading your employment or rent contract (or any other contract)? Look up that paragraph the income tax office's letter cites?
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 23:09
  • A patent on a hammer that expires in 2034 patents.google.com/patent/US9802304B2 Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 0:42

Who is supposed to teach the law to the citizens?

Each individual is responsible for educating himself or herself on the law. That is one condition the individual needs to meet for living in, and preserving, a civilized society. But it is a crucial prerequisite for a government to ensure that its laws are accessible, intelligible, and applied consistently. If the government does not meet that obligation, the individual cannot be reasonably expected to know the laws he is supposed to follow.

The principle you mention ("not knowing the law does not excuse violating it") impliedly invalidates a person's pretext of the sort "But that's what he/they/school/lawyer taught me what the law says" when that person gets busted for violating the law. To preempt such risk of misinformation, the individual first needs to develop certain level of literacy and then remove the man-in-the-middle. If at that point the law remains confusing or convoluted, it means that the lawmaker did a poor job and/or that the judiciary is failing its duty of equal application of the laws.

People often retain a lawyer as a means to delegate --whether consciously or not-- their duty of self-teaching of the law. But, besides being costly, that decision is ineffective for purposes of learning because in practice the lawyer does not really teach law. Most often a lawyer gives some directions on how to proceed under the narrow circumstances at issue, yet the client remains mostly ignorant of the laws or legal principles involved.

The superficiality of "knowledge" transferred in client-attorney interactions rather resembles a client layman acting henceforth under superstitions based per the attorney's directions/advice. Moreover, the layman remains vulnerable to the middleman's greed and possibly the consequences of ineffective assistance by counsel.

Lastly, since the administration justice is monopolized by the regime (although arguably for good reasons), it is in the individual's best interest to be able to make sense [on his own] of the laws and not allow a for-profit guild to also control his understanding thereof.

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    I live in Germany, and we have a rumour here that legislation has gotten so complex that not even legal professionals have a full grasp of what is relevant any more. Anecdotally, I once missed a legal duty to withhold income tax on behalf of a foreign supplier (or file for exemption). So did our tax advisor. Nor did the customs officer know whom I asked. When talking to the responsible tax officer how to solve the issue retroactively, they told me that they thought it unlikely they'd know about this particular law if they weren't working in that particular tax office...
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 20:00
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    But it is a crucial prerequisite for a government to ensure that its laws are accessible, intelligible, and applied consistently. If the government does not meet that obligation, the individual cannot be reasonably expected to know the laws he is supposed to follow. ... True, but that won't necessarily stop the government from pursuing prosecution.
    – cowlinator
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 22:06
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    @cbeleitessupportsMonica Not just a rumour. See my answer. Chambers [2008] EWCA Crim 2467 IS such a case.
    – user89
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 23:14
  • @cbeleites right, but at least you know it's a rumor. Understand there are a lot of populist beliefs about the law, that just aren't so, but that's the thing, people don't care, as long as it agrees with their preconceived notions, they love to believe it, and they don't want to believe anything else. Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 7:28
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica: I use rumor (or suspicion) because I didn't have any proper study/hard citeable evidence at hand. Your rant about populism is completely off topic, though. While there are [probably] out there the people you describe, their unwillingness to learn is completely irrelevant in determining whether the rumor is true or not. However, thanks to Lai M.Mus's answer, we now have a court ruling in a neighbor legislation that spends 12 of 79 paragraphs on expressing this problem, including that it "is not an isolated lapse.". For me, this advances the concern a step up from rumor.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 23:30

Those exceptions exist for England and Wales. Simester and Sullivan’s Criminal Law (2019 7 ed) p. 27.

The criminal law is not there solely to tell police and judges what to do after someone offends, but also to tell citizens what not to do in advance. As such, it is not enough for there to be a law in place before people can commit a crime. They should also be told about it:35

“Respect for law, which is the most cogent force in prompting orderly conduct in a civilised community, is weakened, if men are punished for acts which according to the general consensus of opinion they were justified in believing to be morally right and in accordance with law.”

That is the reason why non-publication or unavailability of a statutory instrument may be a defence, if a person is charged with a crime under that instrument while incapable of knowing about its existence.36 It also explains why the increasing complexity and obscurity of domestic law is a major threat to basic principles of legal justice. Matters are made worse,

p. 28.

particularly in the area of regulatory criminal law, by the sheer volume of primary and secondary legislation and the piecemeal additions made regularly to it.37
      The Rule of Law mandates that people should be governed by concrete rules that are ascertainable and certain,38 and which minimise the opportunity for officials to wield arbitrary power.39 This requires both that the rule be stated in advance, and also that it be stated clearly.40 Clarity is essential if citizens are to have fair warning that by their prospective actions they are in danger of incurring a criminal sanction.41 If individuals understand the law, they will be able properly to decide what to do in light of the guidance that the law is meant to provide. Only then can the law act as the deterrent it is intended to be. And only then do citizens have a fair opportunity to steer themselves clear of criminal liability.
      Once again, however, fair warning is a Rule of Law aspiration that is not always achieved in practice. Prior to the House of Lords decision in Ireland,42 English criminal lawyers would not generally have predicted that the menace of silent phone calls would be curbed by including them within the definition of assault. Before the decision in R (above), it was widely assumed that a cohabiting husband was immune from the charge of raping his wife. Nonetheless, the House found the immunity to be ungrounded in law.

35 State v O’Neil 126 NW 454, 456 (1910) (emphasis added). See, further: Brett, “Mistake of Law as a Criminal Defence” (1966) 5 MULR 179; Ashworth, “Ignorance of the Criminal Law, and Duties to Avoid It” (2011) 74 MLR 1.
37 Something about which the courts are rightly worried, when neither they nor the enforcement authorities can be sure whether they have to hand the current version of the law: see the extraordinary case of Chambers [2008] EWCA Crim 2467.

Chambers debunks your assumption that teaching citizens the law makes them "aware and abide by it". Let's examine how and why Chambers is EXTRAORDINARY. One of UK's famous Law Lords, Lord Bingham, explains at p. 48 in The Rule of Law (2010).

The biggest loser is, of course, the ordinary person who wants to try and find out, probably with professional help, what the law is.
        A recent case illustrates the problems to which this legislative confusion gives rise.14 A defendant was accused of a tobacco smuggling offence and pleaded guilty in 2007. A community sentence was imposed, and application was made for a confiscation

p. 49

order. His liability to a confiscation order depended on his having evaded payment of duty which he was personally liable to pay. To show that he was liable, the prosecution relied on some 1992 regulations. The trial judge was satisfied that he was liable, and ordered him to pay £66,120 or serve twenty months in prison if he did not. He appealed. The appeal came before three senior judges in the Court of Appeal, who heard argument and announced that they would give their judgment later in writing. They concluded that the defendant was liable to pay the duty under the 1992 regulations, and circulated a draft judgment upholding the confiscation order. On the eve of formally delivering judgment, however, they learned that the 1992 regulations no longer applied to tobacco products, as a result of different regulations made in 2001. Neither the trial judge, nor the prosecutor, nor defending counsel, nor the judges in the Court of Appeal knew of these later regulations, and they were not at fault. As Lord Justice Toulson said, giving judgment allowing the appeal:

there is no comprehensive statute law database with hyperlinks which would enable an intelligent person, by using a search engine, to find out all the legislation on a particular topic. This means that the courts are in many cases unable to discover what the law is, or was at the date with which the court is concerned, and are entirely dependent on the parties for being able to inform them what were the relevant statutory provisions which the court has to apply. This lamentable state of affairs has been raised by responsible bodies on many occasions …15

        Reporting and commenting on this case in the Guardian, Marcel Berlins suggested that the age-old maxim might have to be revised: ignorance of the law is no excuse, unless there is no way of finding out what the law is.16 This was plainly written in jest. But in 1988 and again in 1995 the Italian Constitutional Court ruled that ignorance of the law may constitute an excuse for the citizen when the formulation of the law is such as to lead to obscure and contradictory results.17

14R v Chambers [2008] EWCA Crim 2467, 17 October 2008.

Let's examine the people in bold. The appellant's barrister was Peter Corrigan, but he doesn't say what uni he attended. The Crown's barrister was Gideon Cammerman who became QC 2017. Look at his accomplishments beneath. Undeniably he's very intelligent!

Awards, Qualifications & Other

Cambridge University, Fitzwilliam College – MA (Hons) Cantab.

1912 Academic Scholar

Academic Prize (for top mark in year) – 1993

Inns of Court School of Law – BVC 1995 – 1996

Harmsworth Scholarship, 1995 and Diplock Major Scholarship, 1995

The other two judges were MR JUSTICE GRIFFITH WILLIAMS, HHJ Brodrick, but I can't find out which unis they attended.

  • 5
    Wow ok that is impressive, three sitting judges a prosecutor and a defender not being able to ascertain what the law is in a purely regulatory case. This is the just a further reason why I claim there's just too many laws. Laws surrounding EULA's, internet and technology in general are another minefield. For EULA's in particular the US courts ruled many of them unenforceable due to (how I understand it) the asymmetrical nature of the relationship between the parties.
    – DRF
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 7:59
  • 2
    Excellent answer.
    – copper.hat
    Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 3:32
  • @DRF for more on the EULA issue, search "boilerplate contracts". Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 21:57

Adults are responsible for learning all laws applicable to their activities. For children, their parents or other caretakers are responsible.

This is not as easy as it might seem. Most laws are obvious, do not kill/steal/vandalize etc. Unfortunately there are also some not so obvious laws. Nevertheless, each person is responsible for themselves.

Fortunately there is a class of people, lawyers, who are experts. The rest of us can go to a lawyer and ask them about the law.

If a lawyer enters a lawyer/client relationship, they are giving legal advice to their client. Then they are responsible for the correctness of that advice. There are limits to this responsibility, but I am not a lawyer, so I don't know them. (Also, the details vary with jurisdiction)

If a lawyer who says or writes something without being in a lawyer/client relationship, this does not count as legal advice. The most relevant example is postings to this web site.

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    Have you ever needed to ask a lawyer about the law in your day-to-day life? Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 11:01
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    "The rest of us can go to a lawyer and ask them about the law." Why do you assume everyone can afford a lawyer?
    – user89
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 23:13
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    Claiming that most laws are obvious seems very optimistic to me. IANAL, the more laws I look up, the more I find that are far from obvious. It is not sufficient to not kill, steal, vandalize in order to keep on the right side of the law. Not even for criminal law. I don't have that much experience with lawyers, but my tax advisor tells me whatever they tell me, I sign the documents for the tax office, and in the end I am responsible. Very much in line with what @iñaki-viggers writes.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 0:04
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica: of course, something is working. Otherwise we'd be discussing failed state. But where I am, violating tax law or social security law can get you into criminal law quite fast. And I'm not talking obvious stuff like black work or black money. Example from a business founder course I attended: assume your (small) business is approaching insolvency, and you cannot meet all bills that are due. You decide to at least pay your employee their wage. In consequence, there's not the money left to pay the social insurance fees on that wage. Big Mistake! This is
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 10:28
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica He's not asserting anything like that, you're exaggerating his legitimate point to make it seem ridiculous. Yes, in the real world, there really are limits on the amount of time and money available for investigating potential legal liabilities, and yes, people get burned by it all the time. It really happens, so it's a problem. Whether it's a serious enough problem to justify changing the system is a separate question, but there's no doubt that it IS a legitimate concern.
    – barbecue
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 21:29

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