The laws in our societies tend to be more and more complex, both in content and amount. Nobody can be supposed to know or understand all of them. Yet, as a citizen you are obliged to know and understand all the laws. Isn't this a dilemma? /Lars

There's the old saying that ignorance of the law is no excuse, because it's an excuse that anyone could offer and we wouldnm't know how to refute them. Legally, things are a bit more complicated. I gather that the Due Process clause of the US Constitution carves out some exceptions. If there's nothing "obviously" illegal about a certain kind of conduct, and the State doesn't provide proper notice to citizens that it's against the law, then the law won't pass constitutional muster. A fanciful example: suppose that buried in the bowels of some omnibus bill was a provision making it illegal to drive a red-and-blue car, but the State made no effort to let people know. Fining someone for this new "offence" would probably not stand up to challenge.

So in US law, at least, there's some requirement that citizens have a reasonable chance of knowing what's illegal. But even supposing all the laws were properly promulgated, it's not clear that we have an actual duty to know and understand them all.

Suppose I want to set up a complicated business. I don't know all the relevant laws, and I certainly don't understand them all. But I do know that this is tricky territory. I can be expected to know that there might be various licensing requirements, certain tax provision that I'd be subject to and so on. If I go ahead without consulting a lawyer and break these laws left and right, I won't be able to plead ignorance. But what the law is really expecting of me is not that I become an expert on all this. It expects me to take reasonable means to make sure I'm in compliance with the law. And there's an obvious way to do that short of gaining the knowledge myself: talk to an attorney. I can take reasonable steps to ensure that my business is legal even though I personally have only a faint understanding of what the law entails. And in typical cases, at least, that's what keeps the dilemma at bay.

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