What is Municipal Law?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “municipal law” is used in two different ways. In one sense, municipal law is simply any law which applies internally within a nation, in contrast with international law. The Constitution of Australia, for example, would be classified as municipal law because it is concerned with the internal governance of Australia. On the other hand, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is part of international law. In another sense, the term is used specifically to describe the body of law utilized within a given municipality.

Municipal law describes the body of law utilized within a given municipality.
Municipal law describes the body of law utilized within a given municipality.

The distinction between municipal and international law in the first sense is important. As a general rule, international law is deemed as binding and it will take precedent unless a nation can demonstrate that an aspect of a treaty or similar agreement runs contrary to one of its fundamental values. For example, in the unlikely event that an international law banning women from voting was passed, undoubtedly a number of nations would refuse to comply with it under the argument that it would undermine the value of equality which is enshrined in their cultural and legal precedents.

Municipal law covers how land is used, including where public venues like sports stadiums can be built.
Municipal law covers how land is used, including where public venues like sports stadiums can be built.

If there is a conflict between international and municipal law it may be necessary to bring it to an international court for arbitration if no agreement can be reached. International laws are usually structured in a way which is designed to avoid such conflicts. The drafting of international legal agreement is lengthy in part because of this reason, as each participant in the process must obtain approval from her or his home nation before moving forward.

In the sense of the laws within a municipality, municipal law includes the municipal code, ordinances, and other regulations along with bylaws. This law is usually established by a governing body within the municipality for the purpose of running the municipality smoothly and maintaining public order. Other laws can also apply within a municipality. For example, a city might not have a specific ordinance against murder, but if someone murdered someone within city limits, prosecution would take place under state or provincial law.

Violations of municipal law can subject people to various penalties such as fines or jail time. People should be aware that ignorance of local ordinances is not accepted as an excuse for violating them. Most municipal codes are reasonably similar but people who are not sure about the legality of a given activity should consult a lawyer.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


When you move into a new city it is a good idea to take a peek at the city website for any municipal laws you may be curious about. Often bylaws differ from city to city, and restrictions on things like noise, parking and when you can have a garage sale may come up.

I was surprised to learn that I wasn't allowed to park on my street during certain times of the month. Apparently there is a bylaw in place for street cleaning and you can face hefty fines for blocking the way.

Another thing I noticed is that in my new city, the noise bylaw is in effect much earlier than in my previous city. That puts a bit of a damper on any party plans.


@hamje23 - I think that solely looking to the Constitution for the construction of laws and removing, editing or modifying current ones is a bit of a narrow view that robs our country of the experience of other nations.

I believe that our country exists as part of the international community, and that there are modern events happening that require a broader global perspective. While the Constitution is an excellent framework, looking at the experiences of other countries that have faced the actual events in question can be invaluable.

Furthermore, the founding fathers were highly influenced by France and the Enlightenment when crafting the Constitution. If we want to follow their work we should continue to learn from the mistakes of others rather than make the same ones because we refused to look past our own sources for guidance.


@hamje32 - Also let’s remember that the United States is a member of the United Nations, and had a part to play in crafting these international laws which some people seem so frightened about.


@hamje32 - Let’s not go overboard here. We do need international laws for legitimate purposes. What happens if a criminal escapes from the United States and flees to a European country?

We have extradition treaties with many of these countries, which means that they would have to pursue and send the criminal (or I should say, suspect) back to us for trial.


@NathanG - You raise a good point. That’s why, for my part, I think we should stick to one model-domestic law.

International law and municipal law will not always be compatible. If we are going to be consistent, we should adhere to the Constitution in all of our legislative and judicial practices, and not look to European nations as models to follow, nor interfere in parts of the globe where we don’t have a vital interest.

It’s shocking but not long ago I heard that the Supreme Court looked to the international community as a guide in adjudicating some of our laws here in the United States.

What business do we have looking to other nations for guidance? We already have a Constitution, and that should be our guide.


I think domestic law and international law sometimes come in conflict with each other. One of the most common examples of this involves the interrogation of terrorist detainees.

Some people argue that military tribunals, and the way we interrogate detainees using “enhanced interrogation” techniques as they are euphemistically called, border on torture and therefore violate the Geneva Convention.

Supporters of enhanced interrogation argue otherwise and like to point out that the detainees are enemy combatants and so somehow don’t fall under the Geneva Convention. Obviously, if you live in the United States you expect that general municipal law will trump international law, regardless of your position on these issues.

But that begs the question: what right do we have to interfere with the internal affairs of countries like China, then, under the pretext that their human rights violations violate international law?

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