“Ignorantia juris non-excuse” is the Latin maxim for “Ignorance of the law excuses not.” It can also be known as ‘Ignorantia legis neminem excusat,’ meaning ‘ Ignorance of the law excuses no one.”
This maxim holds that an individual who violates the law will not be pardoned for not knowing the position of the law. Being unaware of the law does not guarantee one’s escape from liability.
It has been said by many that the doctrine, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” first shows up in the Bible in Leviticus 5:17: “If a person sins and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands, even though he does not know it, he is guilty and will be held responsible. The rationale of the doctrine is that if ignorance of the law were an excuse, any individual charged with offences or sued by another would merely claim that he or she was unaware of the position of the law in order to avoid liability, even if that person knows what the law says pertaining the subject.
This is embedded in the laws of Ghana under section 29(2) of the Criminal Offences Act (Act 29) which points to assets ” A person shall not except as in this code otherwise expressly provide, be exempt from liability to punishment for any activity on the ground of ignorance that the act ks prohibited by law”. It is assumed that each individual within the jurisdiction must know the law. It may seem impossible as even a well-trained lawyer would not have complete knowledge of every single law in operation. However, one must endeavour to have at least an idea of the laws of Ghana since willful blindness can not become the basis of exculpation.
The only exception to this doctrine as per Section 29(1) of Act 29 is when an individual by ignorance or by mistake of fact in good faith believes an act to be lawful. Thus, the court must satisfy itself that, genuinely, that individual believed the act to be lawful. Hardly does this come about since a lot goes into proving that an individual believed an act to be lawful in good faith. It is impossible to know the exact thoughts of an individual. The court, in utilising this exception, does not only rely on the words of the individual but their actions as well as surrounding circumstances.
The doctrine assumes that the law in question has been properly promulgated, published, and distributed. For instance, laws on the rights of individuals have been enshrined in Chapter 5 of the 1992 Constitution. Each person is assumed and must endeavour to know his or her rights as an individual.
The ancient phrase of Gratian, “Laws are instituted when they are promulgated,” comes to play here. For a law to be binding, it must be applied to people and must be made available to them. Secret law is no law at all. Application of the law is affected when individuals are given notice by promulgation. A law can bind only when it is reasonably possible for those to whom it applies to acquire knowledge of it in order to observe it.
For instance, a landlord of a house cannot eject the wife and/or child of a man who died as his tenant unless the court gives the landlord permission to do so (Section 16 A (1) (b) of the Intestate Succession Act, 1985 PNDCL 111). A landlord who has no knowledge of this and goes ahead to eject the wife and the child of a deceased tenant will not be pardoned on the grounds of ignorance of the law.
It is, therefore, necessary to know what the law says about our daily activities such as purchasing goods, renting apartments, setting up a company, and many others. The ambit of the laws of Ghana is broad enough to cover all these areas and many others. The position of the law on the various activities we undertake is to protect the indigenous as well as resolve possible conflicts.
Substantial knowledge of the law prevents people from incurring liability.