Law vs. Ordinance

What's the Difference?

Law and ordinance are both legal terms that refer to rules and regulations established by governing bodies. However, there are some key differences between the two. Laws are generally broader in scope and are enacted by legislative bodies at the national or state level. They are binding on all individuals within the jurisdiction and carry significant consequences if violated. On the other hand, ordinances are more specific and are typically enacted by local governments such as cities or counties. They often pertain to local issues such as zoning, noise regulations, or parking restrictions. While ordinances are also legally binding, they tend to have less severe penalties compared to laws. Overall, laws have a wider reach and impact, while ordinances focus on local matters.


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DefinitionRules and regulations established by a governing authority that are binding and enforceable within a jurisdiction.Local laws or regulations enacted by a municipal or local government.
ScopeCan apply at various levels, such as national, state, or international.Primarily applicable at the local level within a specific municipality or region.
EnforcementEnforced by government agencies, courts, and law enforcement authorities.Enforced by local authorities, such as police departments or code enforcement officers.
CreationTypically created by legislative bodies, such as parliaments or congresses.Usually created by local government bodies, such as city councils or county commissions.
ApplicabilityCan have broad applicability across a jurisdiction, affecting multiple areas of life.Primarily applicable to specific local issues, such as zoning, building codes, or public safety.
HierarchyCan be part of a hierarchical legal system, with higher laws superseding lower ones.Generally subordinate to higher-level laws, such as state or national laws.
AmendmentCan be amended or repealed through legislative processes.Can be amended or repealed by the local government body that enacted it.
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Further Detail


Law and ordinance are two terms often used interchangeably, but they have distinct differences in their attributes and implications. Both law and ordinance serve as legal frameworks that govern society, but they differ in their scope, enforcement, and origin. In this article, we will explore the various attributes of law and ordinance, shedding light on their similarities and differences.

Definition and Scope

Law, in its broadest sense, refers to a system of rules and regulations established by a governing authority to maintain order and justice within a society. Laws are typically enacted by legislative bodies, such as parliaments or congresses, and are applicable to an entire jurisdiction, such as a country or state. They cover a wide range of areas, including criminal, civil, constitutional, and administrative matters.

On the other hand, an ordinance is a type of law that is more specific in nature and typically applies to a particular locality or municipality. Ordinances are often enacted by local governments, such as city councils or town boards, to address local issues and concerns. They may cover areas such as zoning, public health, noise regulations, or parking restrictions. Unlike laws, which have a broader scope, ordinances are limited to the jurisdiction in which they are enacted.

Enforcement and Penalties

One of the key differences between law and ordinance lies in their enforcement mechanisms and associated penalties. Laws are generally enforced by the police, judiciary, and other law enforcement agencies. Violations of laws can result in criminal charges, civil lawsuits, fines, imprisonment, or other legal consequences, depending on the severity of the offense and the jurisdiction in which it occurs.

On the other hand, ordinances are primarily enforced by local authorities, such as code enforcement officers or local police departments. Violations of ordinances are typically considered civil infractions rather than criminal offenses, although repeated or severe violations may lead to criminal charges. Penalties for ordinance violations often involve fines, warnings, or corrective actions, such as fixing a code violation or removing an unauthorized structure.

Origin and Legislative Process

The origin and legislative process of law and ordinance also differ significantly. Laws are usually created through a complex legislative process involving multiple stages, debates, and voting by elected representatives. In democratic societies, laws are often proposed as bills, which undergo scrutiny, amendments, and public hearings before being passed or rejected. This process ensures that laws reflect the will of the people and are subject to democratic principles.

Ordinances, on the other hand, are typically enacted through a simpler and more expedited process. Local governments have the authority to pass ordinances within their jurisdiction without the need for extensive legislative procedures. This allows them to respond quickly to local issues and concerns, bypassing the lengthier process involved in creating laws at the national or state level.

Flexibility and Adaptability

Another aspect to consider when comparing law and ordinance is their flexibility and adaptability. Laws, being more comprehensive and applicable to a larger jurisdiction, are often designed to be more enduring and resistant to frequent changes. They provide a stable legal framework that can withstand the test of time and societal changes. However, this can also make it more challenging to update laws to address emerging issues or adapt to evolving social norms.

Ordinances, on the other hand, are more flexible and adaptable due to their localized nature. Local governments can enact, amend, or repeal ordinances relatively quickly to address specific local needs or changing circumstances. This allows them to be more responsive to the unique challenges and dynamics of their communities. However, the flexibility of ordinances can also lead to inconsistencies between different jurisdictions, as each locality may have its own set of regulations.


In conclusion, while law and ordinance share the common goal of establishing legal frameworks to govern society, they differ in various attributes, including their scope, enforcement, origin, and flexibility. Laws are broader in scope, applicable to larger jurisdictions, and are enacted through a more complex legislative process. They are enforced by law enforcement agencies and carry more severe penalties. On the other hand, ordinances are more specific, limited to local jurisdictions, and can be enacted more swiftly by local governments. They are primarily enforced by local authorities and often carry civil penalties. Understanding these differences is crucial for individuals, legal professionals, and policymakers to navigate the intricacies of the legal system and ensure effective governance at both national and local levels.

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