It means that if you break the law and are arrested, you can't legally claim that you are innocent of wrongdoing, because you didn't know there was such a law. Think of how many current and potential criminals could get away with stuff otherwise! ;-)
It means that you cannot break a law and then claim you are innocent because you did not know it was illegal.
I believe that the saying is - 'ignorance of the law is no excuse.' Which I take to mean that because you did't know something was againsty the law it isn't a defense. Seems a little absurd to me, if that is the case, why do judges and solicitors have to study for years and pass many exams, and we have to pay exhorbitant fees for their services when we are all expected to be conversant with the law.
Because it is the job of the court to tell the rest of us what the law is.
Ah, but we are expected to know the law before we get in court. As laymen we are expected to know what has taken solicitors many years and many exams to learn.
One purpose of such a statement is that it releases governments, since they are the only entities that pass laws, from their obligation to inform the public about new laws passed. It also provides the government -- since they are the ones that prosecute crime -- a distinct advantage in controlling its citizenry and getting convictions. Because it is via criminal convictions that governments maintain power. It is a method of control whereupon, people are afraid of venturing outside the "known" boundaries of what is permitted.
The phrase is similar in nature and in conjunction with the "we are a nation of laws" propaganda. Simply because there is a law permitting or restricting something doesn't make it just. In reality every nation is made up of laws -- but that does not make laws passed legitimate. The US often makes claims that another country's laws go against laws of nature. The laws of Communist China or under Nazi Germany were the laws of a nation. That doesn't make the laws right or just. In fact the US went to war because of laws of another country that "we" felt were -- wrong, unjust and inhumane.
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