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unlawful

Not conforming to, permitted by, or recognized by law or rules.

(from here)

illegal

Contrary to or forbidden by law, especially criminal law.

(from here)

Does it all mean that 'unlawful' refers to something simply not mentioned as a permitted action (as a result, there's also no provided punishment), whereas 'illegal' means "explicitly forbidden" and, perhaps, always punishable by a fine, prison sentence, etc? What's the difference between the two words semantically?

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Here we should distinguish between the language as it is generally spoken and understood, and the technical language of lawyers and politicians.

For most people the words mean the same.

There are technical differences: In 2019 the British Prime Minister asked the Queen to temporarily suspend (to prorogue) Parliament. The courts declared this "Unlawful" meaning that the Prime Minister hadn't followed the law, so the suspension had never happened. The courts didn't say it was "Illegal" (so the police didn't arrest Boris Johnson.

If you make a contract that is unlawful, then you can't enforce the terms of that contract. But that doesn't mean that you have broken the criminal law. In general if you do something illegal then you would expect the police to arrest you. But if you do something unlawful, then you won't be arrested, but you can't then depend on the law to help you out and you can expect the courts to tell you to fix the unlawful thing that you did. Refusing to fix it would then be illegal.

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  • So my guess was correct, wasn't it? – Sergey Zolotarev Feb 23 at 19:06
  • Yes, pretty much correct. But the main point is that many people use these words differently from the legal meaning. – James K Feb 23 at 19:24

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