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What does it mean to be "bound" in law?

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There are various conceptions of what it means to have an obligation or to be bound in law. This issue is at heart of some of the most contested questions in jurisprudence, so I will not be able to answer it fully here. I will only be able to present some idea of the breadth of the concept.

One theory is that law only exists where the rules of a superior sovereign are backed by force. A prominent proponent of this theory was John Austin. This is known as the "command" theory of law. This clearly cannot explain obligation at international law. But nor can it explain many of the rules in domestic legal systems that we have no problem conceiving of as law (e.g. the law-making process itself, the system of adjudication, rules that confer power, etc.).

The command theory of law has largely been supplanted by other theories of obligation such as that of H.L.A. Hart. In this view, law does not require rules to be backed by threats of force, or to be imposed by a superior sovereign. Law can exist and sustain itself purely through a group's internal point of view: do the participants "use the rules as standards for the appraisal of their own and others' behaviour" and do they see them as imposing obligations?

With that background, I will set out a spectrum of circumstances or relationships which can be considered as creating "binding" obligations according to various senses of the word:

  • Prescriptive or proscriptive statutes present the clearest case of binding obligation. Obligations imposed by statue often might be explained by the Austinian view of law, although that theory fails to reflect the actual subjective feeling of obligation held by many of the participants in a legal system towards statutory rules.
  • Common law duties are paired with correlative rights (Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld, "Some Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning" (1913) 23:1 Yale Law Journal 16). For example, a contract creates a binding obligation on a person in the sense that the counter party has a legally-justiciable right to be compensated in breach if the obligation is not performed.
  • In international law, when one makes the assertion that a rule is binding, they are simply describing or predicting that the participants view the rule as generating obligation and duty, likely due to the rule's basis in treaty or customary international law. See What does it mean for international law to be binding? What is the nature of obligation at international law?
  • Constitutional conventions, despite not being justiciable, are only recognizable as conventions because the participants view themselves as bound by those conventions. "The acceptance by political actors that they are bound by the rule is the most important condition for a convention to exist" (Malcolm Rowe and Nicolas Déplanche, "Canada's Unwritten Constitutional Order: Conventions and Structural Analysis" (2020) 98:3 Canadian Bar Review 431. These are explicitly non-justiciable.
  • Apex courts can consider themselves bound by stare decisis even where there is no superior court that could confine them. See e.g. R. v. Kirkpatrick, 2022 SCC 33, para. 267 (Wagner C.J. and Côté, Brown, Rowe JJ. in concurrence; emphasis added): "To summarize, this Court can only overturn its own precedents if that precedent (1) was rendered per incuriam, (2) is unworkable, or (3) has had its foundation eroded by significant societal or legal change."

It is not true that being legally bound or obligated only means "you gotta do it this way, or you'll face legal consequences." As the Supreme Court of Canada has said about constitutional conventions (Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 S.C.R. 753):

The observance of constitutional conventions depends upon the acceptance of the obligation of conformance by the actors deemed to be bound thereby ...

and

it is perfectly appropriate to say that to violate a convention is to do something which is unconstitutional although it entails no direct legal consequence.

To summarize, to be "bound" or "obligated" can have a variety of senses in law, and the meaning of these terms is continually contested. Many of the senses do not require some external supervision or review in order for the subjects to be "bound." Thus, when reading the words of others, it is important to approach the term generously. And when speaking or writing for oneself, it is important to clarify the sense in which you mean the word.

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In simple terms, it means "you gotta do it this way, or you'll face legal consequences".

That meaning applies, for example, in the following ways:

  • Anyone who has entered a contract is bound by its terms. If they breach, they will likely have to pay damages.
  • Everyone is bound not to commit crimes. If one does, they will likely be charged, possibly convicted and sentenced.
  • Judges are bound by statute and precedent. If they ignore those, their decision will likely be overturned on appeal and their ego and professional pride will suffer.

Conversely, sectoral guidelines do not quite bind those whom they apply to. For example, prosecutors are professionally encouraged to follow the guidelines but, if they do not, they will not face legal consequences (assuming that they did not commit any crimes in not following those guidelines). At most, their bosses may be displeased, they may get some media backlash, get fired etc. but that's all about it: the decision to prosecute (or not) will remain unchanged.

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It also means destined or gathered into a book:

(a) During a war in which the United States is a neutral nation, every master or person having charge or command of any vessel, domestic or foreign, whether requiring clearance or not, before departure of such vessel from port shall, in addition to the facts required by section 431 of the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 U.S.C. 1431) and section 60105 of title 46, to be set out in the masters’ and shippers’ manifests before clearance will be issued to vessels bound to foreign ports, deliver to the Customs Service a statement, duly verified by oath, that the cargo or any part of the cargo is or is not to be delivered to other vessels in port or to be transshipped on the high seas, and, if it is to be so delivered or transshipped, stating the kind and quantities and the value of the total quantity of each kind of article so to be delivered or transshipped, and the name of the person, corporation, vessel, or government to whom the delivery or transshipment is to be made; and the owners, shippers, or consignors of the cargo of such vessel shall in the same manner and under the same conditions deliver to the Customs Service like statements under oath as to the cargo or the parts thereof laden or shipped by them, respectively.

(18 U.S. Code § 965)

(c) Upon the filing of a proper application and payment of the prescribed fee, the Attorney General shall issue to a qualified applicant the appropriate license which, subject to the provisions of this chapter and other applicable provisions of law, shall entitle the licensee to transport, ship, and receive firearms and ammunition covered by such license in interstate or foreign commerce during the period stated in the license. Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to prohibit a licensed manufacturer, importer, or dealer from maintaining and disposing of a personal collection of firearms, subject only to such restrictions as apply in this chapter to dispositions by a person other than a licensed manufacturer, importer, or dealer. If any firearm is so disposed of by a licensee within one year after its transfer from his business inventory into such licensee’s personal collection or if such disposition or any other acquisition is made for the purpose of willfully evading the restrictions placed upon licensees by this chapter, then such firearm shall be deemed part of such licensee’s business inventory, except that any licensed manufacturer, importer, or dealer who has maintained a firearm as part of a personal collection for one year and who sells or otherwise disposes of such firearm shall record the description of the firearm in a bound volume, containing the name and place of residence and date of birth of the transferee if the transferee is an individual, or the identity and principal and local places of business of the transferee if the transferee is a corporation or other business entity: Provided, That no other recordkeeping shall be required.

(18 U.S. Code § 923)

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  • Those are examples of the ordinary meaning of the word "bound", albeit occurred in legal texts.
    – Greendrake
    Dec 30, 2023 at 21:38
  • @Greendrake the meaning of "bound" that the question's asker had in mind is also an ordinary meaning. Words have multiple senses (and sometimes, as in this case, you can have two distinct words that seem to be the same; "bound" meaning "destined" has a different origin from "bound" meaning "tied").
    – phoog
    Dec 31, 2023 at 9:50
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It means the law requires you to do something or requires you not to do something.

The law "binds" you; it is "binding" upon you; you are "bound" by it.

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