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What Is Legal Equality?

Leigia Rosales
Updated May 16, 2024
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Among the many principles that form the foundation of the law is the principle of legal equality. As the name implies, it is the principle that requires each person to receive equal treatment under the law, or stated another way, requires equal protection under the law for everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, or any other defining characteristic. To what extent this principle is honored among legal systems across the world differs greatly. Long-standing cultural traditions have prevented equality in some nations, while intolerance has prevented equality in others.

The concept of legal equality is a core concept found in classical liberalism. Classical liberalism is a philosophy which was developed in the 19th century throughout western Europe and America. It operated on the belief in limited government and individual liberty. Classical liberalism places a great deal of emphasis on individual sovereignty, out of which comes the idea that all people are entitled to equality under the law.

The United States has been part of more than one movement to enforce the concept of legal equality. The Civil Rights Movement, the Native American Civil Rights Movement, and the Feminist Movement are all examples of individual groups that have fought for, and ultimately won, equality under the law within the United States. Under the laws of the United States, discrimination on the basis of sex, religious preference, race, or any of a number of other defining characteristics is prohibited.

On a global level, the concept of legal equality has been addressed through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. According to the UDHR, all member states are committed to "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion." As of 1976, enough nations had ratified the UDHR to make it an official part of international law, meaning that all member nations are obligated to follow the concepts and philosophies found therein. Although many nations around the world are still struggling with issues of legal equality, most are making an effort to change not just the laws of the country, but also the long-standing cultural traditions that prevent equality under the law as well. Law in many middle eastern countries, for example, that once prevented a woman from being able to inherit or own property have begun to change.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Leigia Rosales
By Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales is a former attorney turned freelance writer. With a law degree and a background in legal practice, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers. Her ability to understand complex topics and communicate them effectively makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By candyquilt — On Oct 14, 2014

I think that a great way to see if there is legal equality in a nation is to see if the rich and powerful are held legally accountable for their deeds, just like the rest of the social classes.

In many countries, politicians, businessman and other powerful and rich individuals get out of their crimes scot-free. If a politician in a country is never even questioned about his corrupt ways and in fact, people literally applaud him and elect him again, obviously there is no legal equality in such a country.

By bluedolphin — On Oct 13, 2014

It's kind of sad that people who wanted equality have always had to fight and work really hard for it. I saw a documentary about the women in the American women's suffrage movement recently and they went through so much. They were jailed, force-fed and pressured. And US was one of the last Western nations to give the right to vote to women.

By ddljohn — On Oct 13, 2014

Legal equality is great. Any nation that calls itself democratic and free must have legal equality. But I don't think that equality under the law is always equal to equality in practice.

There are even today, groups in the United States who don't feel that they are treated equally to others or given the same opportunities. African Americans and women are on top of the list. Everyone knows that women get paid less to do the same work that men do. And the last I checked, a white high school graduate has a higher chance of being hired than an African American college graduate in our country. Although employers claim not to hire people based on their race, ethnicity or religion, we also know that many employers find ways around this and do in fact hire based on some of these factors.

So clearly, legal equality is effective only to a degree. If those laws aren't put into practice, then it doesn't abolish inequality.

Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales is a former attorney turned freelance writer. With a law degree and a background in legal practice, she...
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