Fact Checked

What is a Legitimate Interest?

M. Lupica
M. Lupica

A legitimate interest is a legal standard by which the court may determine that one party has a tangible stake in the question to be decided. Mostly, this will refer to a situation where one party wants to impinge upon a right of another. The court will consider whether the impinging party has a legitimate interest to be furthered by the limitation of the right in question. Often, this standard is used in the interpretation of the enforceability of a contract, but it may also be used in a constitutional context when a government creates a law that limits the rights of certain citizens.

In contract law, a court will often question when deciding the enforceability of a contract whether one party has a legitimate interest that would be advanced through the prevention of another party’s actions that would typically be his or her right. This standard will come into play most often if the right is one that is beneficial to society at large. For example, an agreement between an employer and its employee may state that the employee is prohibited from working in a similar industry in a specified geographic area and time after ending his or her employment with the company. The typical standard for the enforcement of such a non-compete agreement is whether the company has a legitimate interest in preventing the employee from finding work according to those terms.

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Legitimate interest may also be used in a constitutional context when a government makes a law that limits the rights of its citizens. A common standard of review in constitutional law is the rational basis test. This test asks whether the law that has impinged upon the citizens’ rights is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. It is a relatively easy standard to meet because the government needs only to show that they have a reason behind the law that is logically related to its enforcement.

Conversely, when a law limits a more fundamental right, such as the right to marry, the government may have to meet a much stricter standard. One common strict standard of review mandates that the government have a compelling interest that is directly furthered by the enforcement of the law. This standard, which is often employed in reviewing laws that discriminate based on race or another suspect classification, goes well beyond the requirement for a simple legitimate interest and is rarely met.

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Discussion Comments


@Charred - Well, they would argue otherwise. Their argument is that the institution of marriage (between one man and one woman) is being undermined. They ask what right do gay couples have to redefine an institution that has been around for thousands of years. So you see, the sword cuts both ways on this issue.


@David09 - The Patriot Act doesn’t bother me. Prohibiting gay marriage does – and no, I am not gay.

What possible claim could the government have in prohibiting two gay couples from marrying? Why does the citizenry get so up in arms about it? They have no legitimate interest – or “standing,” if you prefer.


@nony - Someone cheating on a bar exam doesn’t bother me. But the “Patriot Act” does. It’s an invasion of privacy in my opinion, and while the courts may have ruled that the government has a legitimate interest in violating my privacy for security concerns, I beg to differ.

Eavesdropping on American citizens will not yield any actionable intelligence. The problem with so-called legitimate interest in this case is that it’s a buildup to a slippery slope, where the government becomes increasingly more intrusive and we see our basic freedoms eroded because the courts say the feds have a claim that supersedes these basic liberties.


I think another term I’ve heard that is similar to this is “standing.” You hear this term bandied about a lot in lawsuits. Standing basically means, how does this lawsuit affect you personally?

For example, suppose I filed a lawsuit against someone because I thought they had cheated on their bar exam (for lawyers). While cheating on a bar exam is certainly wrong, what business is it of mine to file the lawsuit? Am I affected personally by it? Will I suffer either way?

You get the idea. The point is that if I cannot establish that the “crime” in question affected me personally, the court may decide that I have no “standing” or “legitimate interest” in filing the suit, and they will dismiss the case.

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