Easier said than done: The problem of non-compliance of the law

“There is no more serious pathology in law than a law that can’t achieve its goal”

A. Andaluz

Have you ever heard that “the laws are dead letters”? Most probably yes and more than once… and probably many examples are moving back-and-forth in your mind, but in order to illustrate what I mean with it let me share a little anecdote:

During a lecture in the law school, the Professor asked the students to raise their hands if they went to classes by motorcycle. More than three-quarters of the class did it, then the Professor said: “Keep your hands up if you use a helmet” Almost no hands were visible.

Wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle is a transit rule, and there are pecuniary fines to punish non-compliance of this specific law. Many questions arise of this example and the most important is a childish one “Why?” short, plane, and many times complex. The analysis will start by answering the following: Why are laws created for?

Well, laws have to do with human behavior. Laws delimit the free will of people within society. Every law that is created has a certain purpose. Traffic laws for example, were created to avoid accidents, to set the order in a city or country, among other things.

The laws are also created to consolidate a social change. One example is when after the fall of the dictatorship of Stroessner in Paraguay, a new constitution was promulgated. It consolidated the change of dictatorship to democracy.

Likewise, laws are created in pursuit of social change. They serve as an instrument of social change and they can be successful or not. A clear example is the Dry Law in the USA, in which, due to strong social and religious mobilization, it was possible to pass a law that tried to abolish the habit of drinking alcoholic beverages. The prohibition banned the production and sale of alcohol, but failed to eliminate the desire of the inhabitants to drink it. The demand for alcoholic beverages was there, whether prohibited or not.

Governments and legislators can decide to abolish, limit, prohibit or regulate broad areas of human behavior, economic activity or public morality and decency even in liberal democracies with strong protections for individual rights. They can decide what behaviors, products or practices are illegal, and they can do that with all the power that the sanctioning apparatus of the State has. They can even do it with the best intentions, and all that, can be absolutely useless, if no one has incentives to obey the law.[1]

Now you may ask: “Why are not the laws obeyed?”.A single answer obviously doesn’t exist. It can vary individually or according to the different social groups.

An annual survey of the World Justice Project says that law enforcement varies widely across the world and appears to be related to per capita income. Western Europe was the region with the best position in the list.[2]

For example, the problem in Mexico of the lack of compliance of the laws lies in how badly they were made. They are that ambiguousthat promote acts of corruption.[3] In Colombia, the sanction of the new Traffic Code typified nearly 100 behaviors that can be fined, many of them not even known by citizens.[4]

Road safety laws are very poorly enforced in the Dominican Republic, a country in which there are not even reliable records of deaths due to traffic accidents and in which, moreover, it has regressed in that area.[5] So, per capita income, corruption, lack of knowledge, lack of social awareness, among other issues, make citizens disobey the laws.

“What can be done about it?”Well, when it comes to answering this question, we can talk about changing laws, hardening sanctions, pursuing offenders more energetically, increasing vigilance, informing citizens about their rights and obligations, fighting corruption, and so on. These Issues have been applied on several occasions but usually they are not sufficient. Because in the end it depends on the social conscience of each one.

The Dry Law and many other laws are reminders about the limits of state power and laws to change the behavior of its citizens. It depends on each one of us. It depends on you, on me, on everyone. Yes, we can do a lot of things as carry out scientific research to contribute to an effective solution, spread legal awareness as this blog seeks, but the most important action is to be the change we want to see in the world.[6]

[1]Roger Senserrich. “When are obeyed tha laws?”.Avaiable in: http://www.jotdown.es/2015/05/cuando-se-cumplen-las-leyes/

[2] Available in:  http://www.voanoticias.com/a/paises-cumplen-leyes-123738644/100380.html

[3] ALFREDO MENDEZ, Laws are not enforced because they are poorly done: specialist. Link: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2006/06/21/index.php?section=politica&article=023n2pol

[4] Available in: http://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/MAM-965873

[5] MARIEN ARISTY CAPITÁN, Traffic laws are little obeyed in the Dominican Republic. Link: http://hoy.com.do/leyestransito-se-cumplen-poco-en-la-republica-dominicana/

[6]Mahatma Gandhi quote.




Antonella Méndez is an educator, environmentalist and agent of change. She holds a Bachelor Degree in International Trade and she is graduating this year (2017) with a Professional Law Degree at the National University of Asunción. She is Assistant Professor of Sociology of Law and she is member of the research committee at university.  She is host of a live TV program about analysis and debate of general interest topics.

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