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Can Laws be Unjust?

Laws simply are a way of life. They are basically a set of well codified rules and regulations that in its truest sense aim at the maintenance and enforcement of order, sanity, and co-existence, which are extremely necessary for the smooth functioning of a society. But what happens when a portion of the same society deems a particular law to be unfit for them? Considering the fact that laws are made for the people in the first place. This naturally, typically and justifiably could lead to a citizen’s protest against the rule-makers.

The laws that seems to favour one group of people over the other, causing physical, mental, financial or any other form of damage, harm or oppression to the others automatically fall within the definition of unjust laws.

Martin Luther King Jr quotes “an unjust law is no law at all”. So, how does one decide if a law is unjust, and should an action even be taken against it at the first place and secondly, if one has a moral responsibility to disobey with an unjust law?

In order to answer the same, one must primary make oneself aware of what Unjust laws precisely are and how can one determine if a law is just or not.

The very concept of unjust law in itself is extremely debatable. Some legal positivist argue that, the essence of a law is the command of the sovereign. They tend to strongly defend the lawmakers by accepting them to be the ultimate sovereign and therefore conclude that whatever they do is right and the laws that they frame are absolutely appropriate and just in nature. On the other hand, some disagree that the laws made by the sovereign are necessarily the standard of justice or morality.[1] On which Jeremy Bentham, a well renowned jurist rightly commented that “if a law does not provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it would be an unjust law”. 

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In simpler terms an unjust law is that law which either tends to go against the fundamental rights of citizens or fails to support and protect the general will of the citizens.  From a layman’s perspective, any law that seems to be out of the lines with the fundamental rights or basic human principles is regarded to be an unjust law.

Now, in order to answer the latter Half of the question which is, how does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?

A law is a man-made code, formulated and enforced to guide and protect the human society. Therefore, any law that uplifts human personality can simply be deemed to be just. Similarly, any law that degrades human personality is unjust. For example, the statutes that promote segregation automatically fall into the category of unjust laws. As segregation gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and forces upon the segregated class a false sense of inferiority, which eventually distorts and damages one’s personality. 

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” quotes Martin Luther King Jr. He was profoundly convinced that “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law”, By which he tried to convince the world that display of disobedience with the unjust is as much a moral obligation as obedience with the just is.[2] Disobedience takes the form of civil disobedience with a group of people tend to express discontent towards a particular law. The term Civil disobedience was coined by Henry David Thoreau, he believed that an individual if has a duty to obey just laws, he also has a right to disobey the unjust.

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One such unjust Indian law that has received civil disobedience in the recent times is the Transgender Bill. It was deemed to by unjust by the transgender community as the law which aimed at protecting them rather tend to degrade them. The society has times and again betrayed the transgender community. The state conveniently erased their awful stories of force killing, raping and also forced stripping. The transgender community found a ray of hope in the year 2014 when the government ensured the recognition of the community’s identities, but what followed was an abjure of the claims and the assurance given to them.  A series of bills beginning with the bill of 2016 followed by the one in the year 2018 and recently in 2019, were nothing but a death knell on the culmination of hopes of community.  This bill can be deemed to be unjust as it failed to protect the general will and the interest of the class of people it was made for the in the very first place. 

An apt example of such laws, would be the American legal doctrine of Separate but equal which prompted racial segregation. Laws across the globe that paved way for slavery are also considered to be extremely unjust in nature. Another historic example would be the civil disobedience movement led by MK Gandhi against the British laws that imposed tax on salt. He led a civil disobedience campaign in order to persuade the authorities to change their policies.

By the above stated examples, it is evident that, in the face of history there has been an existence of unjust laws. Men have also revolted and refuted against the same in order to protect their rights and human principles, which the laws purged upon.

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From generation to generation, man has been taught that laws are a set of well drafter rules enforced in order to help the society and not to harm it, but the certain laws that have been passed in tend to do the exact opposite. Which in turn paves a way to disobedience and civil protests against such laws. Such protests against unjust laws are to be considered as a departure from democracy, it is rather to be considered an extremely essential moral obligation.

I strongly opine that, any law that degrades human personality are said to be unjust. And one should not be a slave of the government and the laws framed by them but of his own rationality and conscious. Now, it’s the readers turn to question their conscience, “Can Laws be Unjust?”.


[1] Legal positivism, Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy (Dec.17,2019, 12:33p.m), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/legal-positivism/.

[2] Maria Popova, Martin Luther King, Jr. on justice, Brain pickings (mar.18,2015, 9: 40p.m), https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/03/18/martin-luther-king-letter-from-birmingham-city-jail/.


Cite this article (The Bluebook 20th ed.)-

Vibha V, Can Laws be Unjust?, Ex Gratia Law Journal, (August 22, 2020), https://exgratialawjournal.in/blawg/constitutional-law/can-laws-be-unjust/.

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Vibha V
Student - CMR School of legal studies