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We get a lot of questions of the form

Person X did / wants to do conduct Y (in jurisdiction Z). Is this legal?

But I can think of many different interpretations of the word "legal" here, so I am never sure how to answer such questions. It could mean:

  • Is there a criminal law forbidding Y in jurisdiction Z?

  • Could X be punished criminally for doing Y? (fine, community service, imprisonment, execution, etc)

  • Is it likely that X would actually be prosecuted and/or convicted for their conduct?

  • Is there a civil law forbidding Y in jurisdiction Z?

  • Could X be required to pay a civil penalty for doing Y?

  • Has X committed a tort by doing Y?

  • Has X violated the terms of some binding / enforceable contract by doing Y?

  • Could X be held liable for monetary damages for doing Y?

  • Could someone get an injunction to order X not to do Y?

  • Is it likely that X would actually be held liable for Y in the event of a lawsuit, with significant damages awarded?

I could go on. But can anyone offer general guidelines for how to handle such questions?

Should we simply ask the poster to clarify what they want to know?

What about posters who are not sufficiently familiar with the law to understand all the concepts I mentioned above, and who might therefore have difficulty clarifying their questions?

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But can anyone offer general guidelines for how to handle such questions?

Don't tie yourself in knots over this. This is an informal Q&A site, we are not giving professional legal advice and anyone who acts on an answer from here (other than to seek further information) is a) an idiot and b) in for a nasty shock.

The Oxford dictionary defines legal as:

  1. relating to the law: "the European legal system"
  2. permitted by law: "he claimed that it had all been legal"
  3. US denoting a size of paper that measures 22 × 35.5 cm (8.5 × 14 inches). "a yellow legal pad"

It should be obvious that most of the questions of this form are using definition 2. Some will use definition 1 and I would be very surprised to see any using definition 3.

So, something is legal if it is permitted by law; committing crimes is not legal, committing torts is not legal, breaking contracts is not legal etc. . In fact, all of the reasons you cite (except the last one) go to if something is legal; if you think the proposed course of action will trigger any of these eventualities then it is not legal. With the last one, it may be relevant to point out that "This is not legal because ... but there are unlikely to be any consequences because ..."

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My opinion on such answer:

  1. Assert that you are not a lawyer or this is not legal advice.
  2. Look through statutes/case law and determine if you can find anything prohibiting conduct. 2.1. If something could be legal/illegal give your interpretation of the statutes, case law or other applicable provisions.
  3. If you cannot find that any reason why such conduct would be illegal, try to analyze if any fundamental right is concerned and if such right would override any legislation prohibiting such conduct.
  4. If the above yield no results then revert to the general ideas of the jurisdictions legal system. Ie. in most legal system non-prohibited conduct is legal, for some, however, non-permitted conduct is illegal.

Asking if something is legal to do, in my opinion, concerns only criminal conduct, so that is how I will answer.

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    As to your last sentence, for a dissenting view, see law.stackexchange.com/a/557/576, where feetwet asserts: "breach of contract is in general – but with an astonishing number of exceptions! – illegal." – Nate Eldredge Dec 14 '15 at 23:25
  • @NateEldredge yes that is a plausible definition to go by as well. – Viktor Dec 15 '15 at 0:48

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