What does "De Lege Lata" Mean?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

De lege lata, also known as lex lata, is a Latin phrase that means “as the law is,” or “the law that exists.” This term is often used in contrast with a similar term, de lege ferenda, which means “the law as it should be.” In legal terminology, the concept is often used to compare and contrast an existing law to a proposed law.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Law is not always comprehensive. History has shown that, rather than being an absolute, law is often made to shift and change with corresponding changes of the time. Addenda, amendments, and repeals are frequently made to change the law from a current state to a future one based on new concerns or changing social politics. In order to understand how to change a law, de lege lata must first be understood.

For example, understanding this concept can be important if a lawmaker wishes to repeal or change a law based on a theory of legislative intent. This is a controversial subject, as some lawyers, politicians, and judges feel that all decisions and laws should be based on what the law actually says, rather than what it was meant to say. Studying legislative history to better understand legislative intent in order to effect a change in law that will make it de lege ferenda as opposed to de lege lata is prohibited in some systems and encouraged in others.

One of the problems that may lead to renewed study and controversy over de lege lata is that laws are often written in formal and archaic language. Words change meaning and fall out of use altogether along the march of time, making it vitally important to make sure that what the law says is what the law actually means. Arguments over what the best interpretation of a particular law take place both regularly and vigorously throughout legal circles.

In contrast, de lege ferenda is often interpreted very narrowly. There are many possible ideas and maxims that presumably could be law, but these are not the basis of this concept. To be truly contrasted with de lege lata, a law must be either proposed or at least feasibly conceived. This can help limit debate on changes or new laws to those that are truly legislatively conceivable, as opposed to ideas that may be good but are often impractical or impossible to make into law.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@Monika - I agree. Plus I think it would be very difficult to really figure out what any lawmaker had in mind when they wrote the law if it isn't clear from the text.

I think it would be too easy for legislators to decide the law means exactly what they want it to mean!


It sounds like law makers really have their work cut out for them. I know the average person can barely understand some laws the way they are written. I bet some professionals struggle with the language as well.

I think it would be much better if the laws were written in plain language. Then there would be no questions as to the intent of the law-it would be easy to understand from the actual text of the law!


I agree with the article that laws do not need to be very clear or all encompassing. It's really hard for them to be that way anyway because laws cannot foresee what circumstances and cases might come up in the future. That's why in law, lawmakers and court judges usually interpret laws to what it actually means or what the lawmaker who made the law had in mind. I do believe that each law has a purpose, it was made with a specific problem in mind and it cannot be applied to every similar case.

Also, if we tried to re-write every single law that was not in a clear language or written with today's English, it would probably take months and years to do it. We even have active laws that are not even applicable anymore in this country.

I personally trust our judges and leave law makers to decide what the difference between de lege lata and de lege ferenda is.


Changing a law based on different interpretations sounds like a difficult and complicated thing to do.

If I understand this right, 'de lege ferenda' is actually the interpretation of that law by that lawmaker. Unless, there is some sort of a ruling or case from before that is a good example of that law and how it was applied, how would we know if 'de lege lata' and 'de lege ferenda' are really different and misapplied?

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