What is a bylaw? (Meaning and Usage)

You may be familiar with the term law – principles and regulations established and agreed upon by a community or institution, which determine codes of conduct and safety. Laws are established and enforced by governmental agencies and have consequences if they are not followed.

But what about a bylaw? Much like the name appears, bylaw relates to following pre-established rules and expectations. A bylaw is not more important, nor does it supersede the law under which it falls.

A bylaw is a rule that has been implemented or adopted by an organization or community which specifies how the organization would like to operate itself.

A City’s Example

A law is something that is applicable to an entire community. For example, in the fictional city of Wonderville in the county of Fantastic, the community has voted on its laws to ensure its citizens follow the speed limit, set up community services (hospitals, libraries, etc.), and people are able to stay safe. Citizens follow the county laws for street signs, traffic lights, and other familiar driving laws.

However, the community of Wonderville is small. They would like to adopt some bylaws – laws that are decided by the community or organization, specifically regarding behaviors and laws that adhere only to those who visit Wonderville.In the county of Fantastic, the speed limit is an average of 35 miles per hour. If you drive 10 miles over the speed limit, you will get a speeding ticket. This is the law that was determined for the county.

In Wonderville, the residents were concerned that their small town’s roads were not safe to travel on at this speed. So, the citizens of Wonderville decided to vote on a bylaw: when driving in their town, the maximum speed is 25 miles per hour. The same laws of Fantastic still apply. If you drive 10 miles over the speed limit in Wonderville, you will still get a speeding ticket. The bylaw simply changes the maximum speed limit that is acceptable but does not change the outcome or consequences for violating this law.

How do bylaws come about?

In the United States, it is common to see terms such as “regulation”, “ordinance”, or “code” when referring to these smaller, localized bylaws. This is largely because the federal government does not have the authority to oversee these small regulations. As such, the word “law” is often left out of the terminology. This does not imply that bylaws are not enforceable; in fact, bylaws, codes, ordinances, etc. are still enforced by law enforcement, community agencies, or the organization itself.

City Councils

Let’s take another look at how the county of Fantastic and the city of Wonderville use bylaws to help structure their community. The Fantastic County citizens have voted on a law to allow each city its own city council. After citizens have elected the council members, bylaws must be established to determine the behaviors and laws specifically for those who are serving on the city council. The bylaws may include such topics as:

  • Where and when are meetings held?
  • What topics are appropriate for the meetings?
  • How often are elections/city council terms?
  • How many city council members there can be?
  • How often should the city council meet?

Here, the city of Wonderville can make its own bylaw decisions for its small community while still maintaining and respecting the laws of its larger community.

Final Thoughts

The law and bylaw relationship is one that needs the other to thrive. To consider the relationship, the larger laws tell us what we need to do, and bylaws often tell us how. Bylaws are meant to decide how an organization handles its own affairs, and are useful tools to help manage consistency and order in communities.