Difference Between Illegal and Unlawful

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: April 30, 2023


Difference Between Illegal and Unlawful

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What is law? It is a system of functioning rules executed by the social or governmental institutes to make sure that the rules are being followed by every person in the state, however, the precise definition of Law has been a constant debate.

According to Roscoe Pound, “law is the body of principals recognized or enforced by public and regular tribunals in the administration of justice.”

According to Austin, “law is the aggregate of the rules set by men as political superiors or sovereign to men as politically subject.”

What is legal? Deriving authority from or founded on law is known as legal. Or in simpler terms, it is derived from law.

In the definitions above we learn that law is the rules in a state while legal is something which is derived from the law. Is it legal to eat near the river? Are there any laws prohibiting us from eating near the river? You see there is this minute difference that distinguishes the two from each other.

What is the History of Law?

With the development of the civilizations, there was a growing need for a government and we all know that to run a government smoothly we need a set of rules to regulate the state and keep the behaviour of the individuals in check. Ancient Egyptian law which is dated back to 3000 BC, was based on the concept of Ma’at, which means truth, harmony, balance, order, law, morality and justice. By the time the 22nd century BC rolled around, the ancient Sumerian rulerUr-Nammu had formulated the first law code in the form of statements such as “if....then....”

Ancient India and China are said to be some of the oldest countries in the world where the manuscripts found and studied state different forms of laws followed by the people. Arthashastra written by Kautilya or Chanakya is an ancient Indian Sanskrit compilation of policies of the state and economic and military strategies. The manusmriti also known as the laws of Manu is believed to be the first ancient written proof of the constitution of the ancient Bharatvarsh.

The Ancient Greek law contained constitutional innovations which led to the current governmental structure of democracy. The Greek city of Athens is said to be the first society based on the inclusiveness of its citizens except for the women and the slaves.

The Romans were heavily influenced by the Greeks thus it is no surprise that even their law was a derivation of Greek philosophy. However, the official laws, as much as they were influenced by the Greeks, were carefully crafted by the jury and were as sophisticated as we expect the ancient Romans to be.

These are just some of the examples of how the law dates back in the centuries and how those same rules and regulations of the older days still affect our current judicial state. Each country exclusively follows some of the exceptional rules from their past because let us all admit this, our ancestors were geniuses because of whom we have such elaborate matters to study about.

How Does The Law Affect Us In Our Daily Lives?

Ever felt like overspeeding while driving? Ever wondered about going to a place where it is prohibited? Ever had that feeling of rebellion and wanting to just break all the rules? What stops us from following our hearts? Well, of course not everyone stops but to those who stop themselves from doing all of it, why do they stop?

Possibly because of the reinforcement. We stop ourselves from committing a crime because we are afraid of being caught and facing the consequences of our mistakes. It is because of the law of a state that we are living freely. It is because of the law of a state that people are still living in harmony inside the country.

Imagine a world without any form of law. Rather imagine a world without any reinforcement for breaking the rules. It would be chaos, to say the least. The country would be in conflict all the time and the people would not be able to do much for themselves except for trying to protect themselves on their own. No law means no executives. No executives mean no one to help us in need. No help means misery. And misery means a poor life. It is all a loop. The judiciary, the legislation and the executive of a state are all interrelated and without any of them, the country can barely function. Thus an ideal state is also a state which includes the three of them and considers its people’s choices and freedom.

Unlawful vs. Illegal

Now that we have come down to talking about what is legal and what is law, we must know that there is always an opposite of it. As we all know, every coin has two sides and but eventually, it is just the same coin. Similarly, the law is one side of the coin and unlawful is the other side of the coin. And legal is another side of the coin whereas illegal is the other side of the coin. We are talking about two different coins, or maybe a single coin where law and legal are the heads and illegal and unlawful are the tails. Wasn’t that easy?

The breaking of a law or a legal statement is unlawful and illegal respectively. But both of the terms are so similar that it almost seems illegal to say them separately. But there are differences, minute maybe, but differences nonetheless. Let’s take a look at the table below to have a better understanding of this.

Difference Between Unlawful and Illegal in Tabular Form

Properties Illegal Unlawful
Definition Illegal stands for everything which is an offence or which is prohibited by the law. Unlawful means something that is not authorized by law because no such law has been passed.
Reinforcement Punishment for committing an illegal act is decided by the constitution, that is, it is previously decided by the lawmakers. An unlawful act is pusnishable and the punishment is decided by the court through a different process.
Derivation It is derived from the Latin word “legalis” which means about law and the “il” at the end means not. Thus, it means something which is not about the law. It has been derived from the Teutonic word “lag” which means definite. And unlawful is the exact opposite of law. It is an old English word.
Example Stealing candies from a store is illegal. Underage drinking or driving is illegal. Conspiring something against someone is unlawful. An extramarital affair is unlawful.

What is illegal?

When one smokes in front of a sign that clearly states ‘no smoking’, that act is known as illegal. The person performing the act is doing something punishable by the law. An act that is strictly prohibited by the law is known as illegal. It is an act which is banned by the law and has nothing to do with the morality principle in a human. It is often a written down concept in a written constitution and a rigid statement in an unwritten constitution which is punishable by the law. There are often some pre-decided punishments for a person going against the law and committing an illegal act. They have to then serve their punishment upon being caught by the reinforcers. Illegal is a commonly used term as we often use it in our vocabulary while trying to state certain acts of the individuals.

As given in the table above, legal is derived from the Latin word ‘legalis’ which is supposed to mean something which is abiding by the law and the prefix ‘il’ means not. Bringing the two words together we have il legalis which means not abiding by the law.

For any law to be considered illegal there must be a law passed by the legislature or the constitution stating the rules and the punishments for the violation of the rules. The term law also includes the previous judicial hearings which may not necessarily be in the constitution, but it is to be noted that the given statements by the judiciary are also a law, whether included in the parliament or not.

What Are Some Of The Most Common Punishments For Committing An Illegal Act?

Although the punishment highly depends upon the crime and the law stating the same, there are some very common punishments for illegal acts across the world.

The death penalty is often sentenced to people who have committed an atrocious crime against the law. Jails are short-term lock centres to keep the convicts. Prisons on the other hand are long-term penal facilities operated by the governments usually containing the convicts for a life sentence or a longer period. Probation refers to the absolute discipline followed by the probationer, usually considered when the crime is non-violent. Boot camps. House arrest and fines are other methods of making the person guilty pay for their illegal acts and in turn giving them a lesson of not repeating the same act.

What is Unlawful?

Unlawful is an act which is not specifically prohibited by the law but is considered morally wrong when committed. Wearing our footwear into a temple, we feel like we committed a crime. It is certainly not stated in the law that we do not have to wear our footwear in the temple but it certainly feels like breaking a law while doing so. That can be considered an unlawful act. It greatly depends upon the morality principle.

The word unlawful is derived from an old English word and the prefix ‘un’ refers to not thus the word means not lawful. To consider an act unlawful there must be no specific law formed by the lawmakers, it shall be decided by the law to give punishments to such acts. Now you would not be punished for wearing footwear in the temple, you will just be judged.

Unlawful is not a very common term used by the people. Not many are aware of how to distinguish between unlawful and illegal. It is often said to be the same thing, however, we now know that it is not the same thing.


To understand any concept is always wise to take up some references or examples to be thorough with the topic. Kidnapping is considered to be an unlawful and punishable act under the government of the state. It refers to the intentional depriving of a person of their freedom and rights and keeping them illegally detained.

Domestic violence, which is a punishable act by the law is also morally wrong. It is frowned upon by society and its people. Arson is the act of intentionally setting fire to the immovable property of another individual, intending to harm them is an unlawful act. Assault or attempted assaults are once again punishable by the law where a court hearing is fixed and the decision is left at the hands of the judiciary to decide the appropriate punishment for the person who committed the unlawful act.


Illegal means to break a certain law while unlawful is an act which is considered morally wrong by society and its people. Both illegal acts and unlawful acts are punishable however an illegal act is punishable under specific laws in the constitution and unlawful acts are punished by the court. Illegal activities always mean unlawful whereas unlawful does not always mean illegal. Illegal is derived from a Latin word and unlawful is an old English word. Unlawful is a wider range of crimes committed by the people whereas illegal is a specific way in which a person is said to fail the law. Drug sale, murder, and stealing all fall under the category of illegal acts whereas domestic violence, unethical business practices or racism or discrimination are all unlawful acts. Illegal acts are forbidden by the law explicitly, whereas unlawful acts are forbidden by the government implicitly.




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"Difference Between Illegal and Unlawful." Diffzy.com, 2024. Sat. 20 Apr. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-illegal-and-unlawful-721>.

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