Unenforced law

An unenforced law (also symbolic law,[1] dead letter law[2]) is a law which is formally in effect (de jure), but is usually (de facto) not penalized by a jurisdiction. Such laws are usually ignored by law enforcement, and therefore there are few or no practical consequences for breaking them.[3] The existence of unenforced laws has been criticized for undermining the legal system in general, as such laws may be selectively enforced.[4]


Unenforced laws may be enacted purely for symbolic reasons, with little or no intention of enforcement.[5] There are also circumstances in which an otherwise enforced law is not; for example, speeding in a motor vehicle is illegal in most jurisdictions,[6] however law enforcement may choose to ignore motorists who only slightly exceed the legal speed limit.[7] Automated traffic enforcement cameras may still issue fines in these circumstances in some jurisdictions.[8]

Although incest is illegal in many European countries, it is generally not enforced if between two consenting adults.[9]

Symbolic laws typically attempt to persuade rather than enforce, punish or prevent.[10][4] For example, until the relevant statute was repealed in 2013, adultery was prohibited by law in the US state of Colorado, but no criminal penalty was specified.[11] In Maryland, adultery is prohibited, however the statutory criminal penalty is limited to a $10 fine.[12]

See also


  1. "Symbolic law definition". Law Insider.
  2. "Dead Letter Law and Legal Definition". USLegal.
  3. Modern criminal law; Wayne R. LaFave; P 53
  4. Fieschi, Catherine (2006-02-26). "Symbolic laws". Prospect Magazine. Retrieved 2021-04-26.
  5. The legal system: a social science perspective retrieved 29 January 2012
  6. "Speed Limits - List of the Speed Limits on per Country Basis". www.rhinocarhire.com. Retrieved 2021-04-26.
  7. Law Without Values: The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes retrieved 29 January 2012
  8. AlpertAugust 2, David; 2012 202. "What is the right level for speed camera fines?". ggwash.org. Retrieved 2021-02-01.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  9. "Geschwisterpaar bringt Inzest-Verbot ins Wanken" (in German). 22 May 2011.
  10. Law as symbolic form Deniz Coskun
  11. "Bill to repeal of Colorado adultery law signed". The Denver Post. Associated Press. 2013-03-22. Retrieved 2021-04-26.
  12. "Crimes Against Marriage | The Maryland People's Law Library". www.peoples-law.org. Retrieved 2021-04-26.

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