The Supreme Court in Krishna Kishore Firm v. The Govt of AP and others, AIR 1990 SC 2292 had occasion to consider the question as to what is the difference between the “lawful possession” and “legal possession”.
Their Lordships held thus:-
“True the appellant was neither owner nor lessee. Yet was his possession forbidden in law? Was there no excuse for his possession?
The error committed by High Court was to equate lawful with legal.
Legal and lawful, normally, convey the same sense and are usually interchangeable. What is legal is lawful, but what is lawful may be so without being formally legal.
“The principal distinction between the terms ‘lawful’ and ‘legal’ is that former contemplates the substance of law, the latter the form of law.”
To any of an act that it is lawful implies that it is authorised, sanctioned or at any rate not forbidden by law. (Black’s Law Dictionary.
Same thought about lawful has been brought out by Pollock and Wright by explaining that ‘Lawful possession’ means in legal possession which is also rightful or at least excusable.
Thus that which is not stricto legalo may yet be lawful. It should not be forbidden by law.
In fact, legal is associated with provisions in the Act, Rules etc. Whereas lawful visualises all that is not illegal against law or even permissible.
Lawful is wider in connotation than legal. Although provision in Specific Performance Act empowering a person or tenant to recover possession if he has been evicted forcibly by the landlord may be juridical and not lawful or a tenant holding-over is not in lawful possession unless landlord agrees or acquiesces expressly or impliedly but that does not alter the legal position about possession of a person not legal yet not without interest.”