Ignorance of Law is not an excuse

Ignorance of Law is not an excuse, is a legal principle holding that a person who is unaware of a law may not escape liability for violating that law merely because he or she was unaware of its content. This principle has its origin from the Legal Maxim Ignorantia juris non excusat or ignorantia legis neminem excusat, which means “ignorance of the law does not excuse” or “ignorance of the law excuses no one”.

Presumed knowledge of the law is the principle in jurisprudence that one is bound by a law even if one does not know of it. It has also been defined as the “prohibition of ignorance of the law”. The concept comes from Roman law, and is expressed in the brocard ignorantia legis non excusat. The essential public character of a law requires that the law must apply to anyone in the jurisdiction where the law applies. Thus, no one can justify his conduct on the grounds that he was not aware of the law.

The rationale of the doctrine is that if ignorance were an excuse, a person charged with criminal offenses or a subject of a civil lawsuit would merely claim that he or she is unaware of the law in question to avoid liability, even though the person really does know what the law in question is. Thus, the law imputes knowledge of all laws to all persons within the jurisdiction no matter how transiently. Even though it would be impossible, even for someone with substantial legal training, to be aware of every law in operation in every aspect of a state’s activities, this is the price paid to ensure that willful blindness cannot become the basis of exculpation.

Thus, it is well settled that persons engaged in any undertakings outside what is common for a normal person, such as running a nuclear power plant, will make themselves aware of the laws necessary to engage in that undertaking. If they do not, they cannot complain if they incur liability. The doctrine assumes that the law in question has been properly published and distributed, for example, by being printed in a government gazette, made available over the internet, or printed in volumes available for sale to the public at affordable prices.

In the criminal law, although ignorance may not clear a defendant of guilt, it can be a consideration in sentencing, particularly where the law is unclear or the defendant sought advice from law enforcement or regulatory officials. In addition, there were, particularly in the days before satellite communication and cellular phones, persons who could genuinely be ignorant of the law due to distance or isolation.

An alternate explanation of the origin of the maxim, though not particular relevant to the modern context, can be found with the philosophy of the Greeks and Romans. These were cultures heavily influence by customary legal systems. Within such a system, law is learned as a person participates in the culture and customs of the community. Thus it is unreasonable to believe a person could have avoided learning them. These rules and customs were also interwoven with ethical and religious dialog so that law expresses what are right and good and deviation that which are not.

“There is a true law, right reason, agreeable to nature, known to all men, constant and eternal, which calls to duty by its precepts, deters from evil by its prohibition. This law cannot be departed from without guilt. Nor are there one law at Rome and another at Athens, one thing now and another afterward; but the same law, unchanging and eternal, binds all races of man and all times.”

Obviously, the maxim as originally conceived was intended as a caution to one if his act or activity were found to be in violation or deviation in the eyes of law. However, a closer study of today’s happenings all around is sure to bring to focus an inescapable fact of life; that is, even the law makers as also the government, and or its authorities / officials are in no small measure responsible for the noted deplorable state of affairs. In fact, one is given the impression that they seem to be under an illusion that ignorance of law on their part is their privilege or prerogative, not something to be shunned or abhorred.

However, some recent interpretations weaken this concept. Particularly in civil law, regard can be had to the difficulty of being informed of the existence of a law considering the lifestyle of the average citizen. On the penal side, the quality of the knowledge of the law can affect the evaluation of the animus nocendi or the mens rea, in that certain subjective conditions can weaken personal responsibility.

All around, there appears to be no dearth of quest or thirst for knowledge; particularly, if it were to be construed in it’s commonly understood sense or flavor. But when it comes to a question of knowledge of law in an absolute sense, the scenario is horrendous or pathetic. If it were to be believed to be otherwise, how then one could explain the astounding fact or reality of life today,- that is, the urge to violate or deviate or disregard even what the law clearly says or mandates, with or without any provocation.

Generally widespread tendency is to try and bypass or flout the law even at the slightest or with no provocation. It is to be concluded that, Ignorance of law is not an excuse because then every accused could claim that he was unaware of the law and it would be impossible for the prosecution to prove that the accused was cognizant of the law. In such situations administering justice will be next to impossible.