An advisory opinion is a legal opinion offered in a situation in which there is not a case or controversy, but there is concern about the interpretation or legality of the law. There are a number of settings in which such opinions may be offered. In some regions, certain courts may be barred from issuing advisory opinions under the terms of national law. When advisory opinions are issued, they may be made public or kept private depending on the nation and the nature of the opinion.
One way to get an advisory opinion is to approach a court and ask the court for an opinion. In regions where courts are allowed to offer advisory opinions, a judge or group of judges can review the information brought to the court and provide a written opinion on it. The opinion may state, for example, that a law appears to be legal and provide arguments to support this stance, drawing upon legal precedent and national values. Or an advisory opinion might suggest that a law is illegal and would be unlikely to stand if challenged.
Another source of an advisory opinion can be a lawyer and legal scholar. Many government agencies keep lawyers on staff and may ask their staff to issue advisory opinions. This is often recommended before passing a new regulation or making major policy changes. The goal is to evaluate the material being proposed to discuss whether or not it will be appropriate. For example, an environmental agency could ask for an advisory opinion on a planned change to emissions standards.
Ethics commissions can also grant advisory opinions. In this case, someone would approach the commission asking for an advisory opinion on an issue which involved an intersection of ethics and law. Consulting people experienced in ethical matters is often recommended before undertaking a project or activity which could be viewed as ethically problematic or questionable; for example, people are required to clear research involving human subjects with ethics panels.
As a general rule, an advisory opinion is not legally binding. However, it can provide useful information about a topic of interest and it may be used to determine whether or not to move forward with a planned activity, proposal, or legal case. People should be aware, however, that opinions can differ radically. An activity cleared by one lawyer may be viewed as questionable by another, or by a court called into session to examine it, and an advisory opinion is not necessarily a green light to proceed.