The legal principle of lex specialis is that the special law derogates the general law in case of inconsistency. The primary alternatives to it are:

Lex superior - the effect originating from the highest priority legal source (e.g. constitutions) derogates.

Lex posterior - the effect originating from the most recently enacted legislation derogates. So, a future general law can override the current special law.

Are there any other principles whereby a past general law can override the present special law, even if it's not derived from a superior legal instrument such as a constitution?


2 Answers 2


One of the principles of statutory interpretation in common law countries is that statutes are not deemed to displace common law rules unless this intent is clearly indicated by the statute. This is often phrased in the form: "a statute in derogation of the common law is to be strictly construed."

This preserves an inferior and older law of general application, in favor of a newer, superior in authority, and more specific law.

For example, a law regarding federal government employee life insurance policy beneficiaries does not expressly provide that the designation of someone as a beneficiary is invalidated in the event that the beneficiary murders the person insured by the life insurance policy.

Notwithstanding the language in the statute that says that a designated beneficiary of the life insurance policy is entitled to the benefits upon the insured's death, the courts have held that the common law rule that a beneficiary of a life insurance policy who kills the insured is not entitled to the benefits of the policy overrides the express statutory statement that the designated beneficiary of a federal government employee life insurance policy is entitled to the benefits when the insured dies.

This result was reached based upon the rule that the common law is not displaced by a statute unless an intent to do so is clearly indicated by the statute.

There may be other exceptions to the rules of lex specialis, lex superior, and lex posterior, but this one is the first that came to mind.

Some states, such as Utah, however, have overruled this interpretative provision. Utah Code § 68-3-2(1) states that:

The rule of the common law that a statute in derogation of the common law is to be strictly construed does not apply to the Utah Code.

  • can you answer this question of mine too please law.stackexchange.com/questions/92381/…. it is related to if the offence or act in the description can be charged and punished under a lower offence even if it is a more specific law and this one especially law.stackexchange.com/q/92356/49072. basically can those two offences be tried and punished in the general law instead of the special law ?
    – user49663
    May 12, 2023 at 22:35
  • @swarahan Indian law is pretty far outside my comfort zone. Sometimes I'll address those issues if it seems clear, but I don't have access to case law from India and while I have more knowledge of the law of India than most American lawyers by a lot, I recognize that I'm still no expert in it.
    – ohwilleke
    May 12, 2023 at 23:54
  • I see that's fine I guess
    – user49663
    May 13, 2023 at 0:08

The principles of lex specialis, lex superior, and lex posterior are some of the most well-known maxims used to resolve conflicts between laws. They provide a framework for determining which law applies when two laws seem to govern the same situation.

The situation you're describing — a past general law overriding a present special law without deriving from a superior legal instrument like a constitution — isn't traditionally covered by a single legal maxim. This is largely because lex specialis is designed specifically to prevent this situation: the idea is that a law addressing a specific situation should override a more general one.

However, legal systems are complex and have many principles and doctrines that could potentially apply, depending on the specifics of the situation. A couple of potential examples could be:

The doctrine of implied repeal: This doctrine suggests that where a later statute (even if general in nature) is inconsistent with an earlier, more specific statute, the later statute to the extent of the inconsistency repeals the earlier one. The principle of in pari materia: When two statutes deal with the same subject matter, they should be interpreted harmoniously. So, a court might find a way to read the two laws so they don't conflict, or it might interpret the more specific law narrowly so that the general law applies to more situations.

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