January 14th, 2007

Legal and Lawful


For some time I’ve been confused about the difference between something being legal and lawful. The two adjectives are so similar that they seem to be synonymous. A little googling enlightened me as to their difference.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “legal” as:

of, based on, or concerned with the law

“Lawful” is defined thusly:

conforming to, permitted by, or recognized by law or rules

The separate definitions don’t do much in the way of contrasting the two words, but the following explanation from The Legal Encyclopedia does define the distinction:

The terms lawful and legal differ in that the former contemplates the substance of law, whereas the latter alludes to the form of law. A lawful act is authorized, sanctioned, or not forbidden by law. A legal act is performed in accordance with the forms and usages of law, or in a technical manner. In this sense, illegal approaches the meaning of invalid. For example, a contract or will, executed without the required formalities, might be regarded as invalid or illegal, but could not be described as unlawful.

The term lawful more clearly suggests an ethical content than does the word legal. The latter merely denotes compliance with technical or formal rules, whereas the former usually signifies a moral substance or ethical permissibility. An additional distinction is that the word legal is used as the synonym of constructive, while lawful is not. Legal fraud is fraud implied by law, or made out by construction, but lawful fraud would be a contradiction in terms. Legal is also used as the antithesis of equitable, just. As a result, legal estate is the correct usage, instead of lawful estate. Under certain circumstances, however, the two words are used as exact equivalents. A lawful writ, warrant, or process is the same as a legal writ, warrant, or process.

Clear as mud?

5 Responses to “Legal and Lawful”

  1. Michael L. Mc Kee
    January 14, 2007 at 5:30 am #


    Started this day at about 4:00 A.M., and now you want us to think.

    I suppose it all depends on your definition of the word “is”, and how you are able to redefine it so others will be able to see clearly.

    Of one thing I am certain, the Lord Jesus Christ is able to show us His absolute understanding of how the higher law relates to our worldly interpretation. He will lead us to a clearer understanding should we decide to seek His counsel.

    Hopefully, I’ll gain new insightful understanding of where I stand before the Giver of the laws during my attempt to keep this Sabbath day holy. Should I be found wanting, I believe the Judge will extend mercy toward me due to my nature, but not because of my ignorance to the law.

  2. John David Anderson
    January 14, 2007 at 5:57 pm #

    I think its the difference between sins (or transgressions) of commission and omission.

    If you’re unlawful, you’ve committed a sin of commission. If you’re not legal, you’ve committed a sin of omission.

  3. Connor
    January 14, 2007 at 6:01 pm #


    I suppose it all depends on your definition of the word “is”…

    I’m not sure I follow… What “is”?


    If you’re unlawful, you’ve committed a sin of commission. If you’re not legal, you’ve committed a sin of omission.

    Very interesting. Thanks for simplifying it even further. I like this comparison.

  4. cindy williams
    August 2, 2020 at 1:51 pm #

    I thought of it as more like “legal” being the letter of the law. And “lawful” being the SPIRIT of the law, or that being the higher form of the law.


  1. Compendium of Cases – Philip Marks - January 1, 2020

    […] http://www.connorboyack.com/blog/legal-and-lawful ‘The Legal Encyclopedia…  [defines] the distinction: […]

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