Obedience to Law and Public Health Restrictions: Exploring the Case for a New Theory of Legal Compliance

Iyioha, Irehobhude | $53,720

British Columbia University of Victoria 2021 SSHRC

At the core of studies on legal effectiveness is the question, Is there an inherent moral duty to obey law?’ The literature identifies a clear connection between non-compliance with public health restrictions (mask wearing, social distancing, travel restrictions, etc.) currently in place to curb COVID‑19 and increased infection and death rates. Indeed, the connection between (non)compliance and a law’s (in)effectiveness is well established.

However, while studies on compliance have made this connection, compliance theories generally have not explored the link between compliance and effectiveness as a critical intersection for expanding understanding of what facilitates or impedes obedience to law. Thus, the scholarship suggests that compliance is secured broadly through coercion based on incentives or sanctions (Instrumental Theories) and through the perceived moral appropriateness of a law (Normative Theories).

This study aims to demonstrate that to answer the question of why people obey law, it is necessary to explore a broader set of factors that limit law’s effectiveness because these same factors can influence compliance with law. These factors largely include: the needs and socio-cultural context of individuals, conflicting norms and values, interpretation of law and the signals it creates, perceptions about law’s character as morally or scientifically (in)correct, and how perception influences a person’s acceptance of a law.

Using these factors (and additional insights from opinion surveys), this study aims to provide an enhanced theory of legal compliance that outlines the conditions that motivate compliance or disobedience with law. Thus, the study will advance academic knowledge in this interdisciplinary area of studies, while offering key insights for policy reform grounded on recognition of why citizens disobey public health restrictions, even in the midst of a raging global pandemic.

To achieve its central objectives, this study analyzes, firstly, normative and instrumental theories of compliance. A careful review of the literature shows that these theories of why people obey law are flawed in at least three key ways:

One, they fail to consider the negative impact of political and ideological divisions that are eroding the notion of truth’ on an individual’s decision to comply with law; two, they fail to capture the broader elements that limit law’s effectiveness and by implication influence compliance with law; and three, they invariably embody false assumptions about individuals subject to law. These assumptions are:

(1) That all individuals understand the facts a law seeks to communicate; (2) that they are rights-holding citizens whose decision to obey or disobey law is not constrained by other laws that implicitly limit their access to social goods; and (3) that at any given time, they can obey public health laws unhindered by socio-economic and related barriers. The outbreak of COVID‑19 and resistance to public health restrictions provide a unique opportunity to challenge these assumptions.

Secondly, to achieve its objectives, the study will apply theoretical perspectives grounded on moral and legal philosophy fields which shed much insight into the necessary conditions that must be satisfied for law to compel behavioural conduct in line with legal provisions.

Thirdly, the study will employ (1) data on inflection points in COVID‑19 infection and death rates that demonstrate correlations between periods of observable non-compliance with restrictions and spikes in infection rates; (2) demographically variegated data on non-compliance with COVID‑19 restrictions to connect resistance to the rules to ideological biases; and (3) questionnaire survey of curated reasons for (non)compliance with law.

With funding from the Government of Canada

Please complete this short survey to help us understand our impact. Thank you!

Give Feedback