The principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse (US) seems reasonable - but it also seems to rely on the presumption that all laws are readily available and understandable, because otherwise the government would be requiring you to comply with something you can’t know or can’t understand.

I don’t believe this presumption is accurate. There are so many different sources of laws (federal, state, local, and others) that even just finding a relevant law is beyond the grasp of some people, and even if you can, many laws are written in “legalese” that can be difficult to interpret.

You can hire a lawyer to answer your questions, but there are two problems with this: One is that it limits legal knowledge to very wealthy people, and the other is that lawyers can be wrong, and if your lawyer gives you bad advice (e.g. you commit a crime because the lawyer said it was not a crime), this is not a defense.

The government doesn’t offer any official channels for legal advice, and in fact even general discussions (like StackExchange) often specifically bar legal advice because it is so difficult and risky to provide.

Why doesn’t the government have any obligation to provide something like a hotline where you can just call and ask if something is legal? It already provides public defenders, which seems to be an admission that the law is beyond the grasp of ordinary people - but you only get a public defender when you have already been accused of a crime.

If the government says, “You are responsible for knowing X, and you are responsible for complying with X,” why doesn’t the government have any obligation to tell you what X is in a way that the general public can actually use?

Please note that this question is not asking for legal advice. It is asking why there aren’t better sources for legal advice.

  • 1
    The only things the government is "obliged" to do are those which the Constitution or Congress has demanded. Neither of those has ever ordered it to provide free legal advice to the general public. Maybe they should have, but that's a question for Politics, not Law. Jul 25, 2020 at 20:46

2 Answers 2


The concept of "ignorance" of laws isn't about the individual. It's about administratibility of the system.

The argument is that a system with a wide-ranging ignorance defense would struggle to produce results—just or otherwise. So the American system presumes knowledge of the law and then carves out narrower exceptions, such as mistake of law. For example, the law wasn't published, or it had been overruled.

Alas, the question about why there isn't a hotline belongs on another site.

  • Here's a nice blog post discussing a recent application of one of the exceptions you cite: nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/ignorance-law-excuse
    – Just a guy
    Jul 25, 2020 at 21:46
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    "hotline belongs on another site" -- are you suggesting Politics.SE because it's a public policy question (the "should be" and "why" of the law rather than the "is")? But isn't public policy itself a recognized driver within the legal system? And wouldn't a hotline advance the system's goal of increasing compliance with the law? I'd say making people actually more aware of the law is as relevant to "administratibility" as the ignorance rule is.
    – nanoman
    Jul 25, 2020 at 23:34

Government-provided legal advice does sometimes exist, mainly for issues where the government is a party (tax and financial regulation). See private letter rulings and no-action letters.

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