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Shall is an imperative command, usually indicating that certain actions are mandatory, and not permissive. This contrasts with the word “may,” which is generally used to indicate a permissive provision, ordinarily implying some degree of discretion.

Some common uses of the term “shall” in a legal sense include:

  • In the context of statutes, cases such as this one from California, explain that “settled principles of statutory construction direct that courts ordinarily construe the word ‘may’ as permissive and the word ‘shall’ as mandatory, particularly when a single statute uses both terms.” 
  • Similarly, this case from Illinois, explains that “the word ‘shall’ in a statute generally indicates a mandatory obligation, although courts sometimes interpret it as directory or permissive.”
  • This case from Illinois, goes on to explain that “when used in a statute, the term ‘shall’ does not have a fixed or inflexible meaning and may be given a permissive or directory interpretation depending on the legislative intent. If a statutory provision using the term ‘shall’ merely directs a manner of conduct to guide officials or is designed to secure order, system, and dispatch in proceedings, it is generally “directory.”

Compare: may

[Last updated in August of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]