Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Vagueness Definition:

A law which lacks in precision as not to give sufficient guidance for legal debate.

Vagueness is a doctrine of constitutional law; and grounds upon which a statute can be found to be inoperative. Every law must be sufficiently clear for the citizens to grasp its import.

In R v Nova Scotia, Justice Gonthier wrote:

"[L]aws that are framed in general terms may be better suited to the achievement of their objectives, inasmuch as in fields governed by public policy circumstances may vary widely in time and from one case to the other.  A very detailed enactment would not provide the required flexibility, and it might furthermore obscure its purposes behind a veil of detailed provisions.  The modern State intervenes today in fields where some generality in the enactments is inevitable.  The substance of these enactments remains nonetheless intelligible.  One must be wary of using the doctrine of vagueness to prevent or impede State action in furtherance of valid social objectives, by requiring the law to achieve a degree of precision to which the subject-matter does not lend itself.  A delicate balance must be maintained between societal interests and individual rights.  A measure of generality also sometimes allows for greater respect for fundamental rights, since circumstances that would not justify the invalidation of a more precise enactment may be accommodated through the application of a more general one.

"What becomes more problematic is not so much general terms conferring broad discretion, but terms failing to give direction as to how to exercise this discretion, so that this exercise may be controlled.  Once more, an unpermissibly vague law will not provide a sufficient basis for legal debate; it will not give a sufficient indication as to how decisions must be reached, such as factors to be considered or determinative elements....

"The doctrine of vagueness can therefore be summed up in this proposition: a law will be found unconstitutionally vague if it so lacks in precision as not to give sufficient guidance for legal debate.  This statement of the doctrine best conforms to the dictates of the rule of law in the modern State, and it reflects the prevailing argumentative, adversarial framework for the administration of justice."

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