Legal Maxim

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Literal Meaning

Ignorance of law cannot be an excuse.


It is quite often said ‘ignorance of law is not an excuse’. As already stated above, it is based on the Latin Maxim “ignorantia legis neminem excusat” or “ignorantia juris, quod quisque, saire tenetur neminem excusat”.

It may be noted that ignorance of fact can be an excuse but not that of law. It is generally accepted that the maxim had its origin in Roman law and there is a direct mention about the same in “The digest of Justicia” or Justinian’s Code. It is stated therein that ignorance of fact may be excused but not ignorance of law. It is a matter of common knowledge that English law is largely based on Roman law and thus naturally, the maxim crept into English Common law also.


The law in the country is all pervading. All our actions are dependent on the law. We have all sorts of law including Criminal law, Constitutional law, Family law, Intellectual property law etc. Ignorance of any of these laws can never be an excuse.


In India hunting of a Wild Buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is an offence as per section 9 of the Wild life Protection Act 1972. If a person, who is ignorant of section 9 of the Wild life protection Act, shoots a wild Buffalo thinking that it is a domestic buffalo he is said to be acting in ignorance of law as well as of a fact.

Case Law

The maxim was considered by the Hon Supreme Court in Motilal Padampat Mills Ltd V State of Uttar Pradesh reported in (1979) 118 ITR 326(SC). The Hon Court observed as follows:

“It must be remembered that there is no presumption that every person knows the law. It is often said that everyone is presumed to know the law, but that is not a correct statement: there is no such maxim known to the law.”

So the Hon court in very clear terms has stated the law. There is no room for doubt. In a case decided by the Hon Supreme court the judges openly admitted that they have never heard of the law which was stated to have been violated by an illiterate person in a remote village. Therefore, the Hon court acquitted the person charged for violating that law. India did not bluntly apply the maxim.

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