If a competent authority issues an order that is (technically or financially or economically or legally) infeasible or absolutely impossible does an organization have to follow it?

For example if a party A maintains a document that is requested by order under a law, but the document belongs to party B and is stored in a way only accessible to B following contract or industry standards?


2 Answers 2


There are two kinds of competent authorities: courts, and government enforcement agencies (tax offices, building inspectors, etc.). A court might order X to do something if Y petitions, but X is notified of the proceeding to which they are a party, and X will (should) object to the petition on the grounds that the petitioned relief is impossible or imposes an extreme burden on them. If, having objected that it is impossible to comply the court still orders you to do the impossible, you have to appeal the ruling. Ultimately the Supreme Court may order you to squeeze blood from a stone, and there is nothing practical that you can do – you must do the impossible, or suffer the consequences. However, courts do not order people to squeeze blood from a stone.

A government agency may make such a demand, with minimal opportunity for you to object. Your recourse is very similar to the case where a party petitions the court to order you to do something. A law may exist whereby an agency is authorized to "order" a person to act in a certain way: there may be a requirement for a hearing, or you may have to sue the agency to overrule their demand. It is possible that you can appeal agency-internally that it is impossible, or too burdensome, to comply, or you may have to make that argument in court. It is usually best to persuade the agency that they are asking the impossible, since the courts tend to defer to government agencies that issue orders, unless your case is particularly egregious.

"It would be inconvenient for us" is generally not a viable defense. The general rule is, you must follow the law, period.

  • However, if the fine is more than the person ever could pay, that is not squeezing blood from a stone.
    – Trish
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 17:16
  • Could you elaborate on the example a bit ? Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 17:18
  • @someone courts do sometimes order a fine that is too high for the convicted party to pay. In such a case, the person declares bankruptcy and the bankruptcy court decides how the person's assets will be distributed to the creditors, including the government.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 18:06

Are laws to be followed only to the extent practical and doable?

This is not true as a general rule. But there are particular circumstances where this is the case, as illustrated by these examples:

  • The general duty of care to others in tort law is, in part, as applied to a particular act of alleged wrongdoing, evaluated in terms of the risk of harm if a precaution is not taken (weighted by the magnitude of the harm) compared to the cost of compliance. More generally, practicability is incorporated pretty much always as a component of any test that involves an element of reasonableness.

  • In many cases alleging breach of contract, the time at which performance is owed is a "reasonable time" as determined from context in a manner that incorporates what is reasonably practicable.

  • In some circumstances, impossibility or impracticability of performance is a defense to a breach of contract (a closely related doctrine excuses non-performance as a result of force majeure or an "act of god").

  • In property law, an easement of necessity can arise between two properties that were formerly in common ownership, despite the absence of an express easement for the benefit of one property across the other, if access to a public road from the property seeking access by means of an easement by necessity is impracticable (with the cost of doing so compared to the value of the property) rather than if it is truly "impossible" to do so and the land is truly landlocked.

  • Impossibility of performance or practical inability to perform is a defense to charges of contempt of court by virtue of violating a court order.

  • The obligation to disclose documents in litigation is usually limited to documents in the possession, custody, or control of the person to whom the request is directed.

  • Inability to meet a deadline due to no fault of your own or your agents is called "excusable neglect" and is in many, but not all, circumstances, a ground for excusing failure to meet a deadline in litigation.

  • Often service of process in a lawsuit is allowed by means other than the safe harbor means of doing so (e.g. by text message or publication instead of personal delivery or delivery to a registered agent) is often only allowed after showing an exercise of due diligence to secure service of process by ordinary means (especially in actions in rem where property rights rather than personal obligations of the person served with process are adjudicated).

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