The Rule of Law Concept

There is no single definition of the rule of law. Scholars and judges describe the rule of law in a variety of ways.

 

The United Nations identifies a number of elements of the rule of law and the ideas that it stands for:
 

  • All people, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws (accountability)
     

  • No person, institution, or entity is above the law (supremacy of law)
     

  • Laws are public and known (legal transparency and certainty)
     

  • Laws are equally enforced (equality before the law)
     

  • Laws are independently adjudicated (separation of powers)
     

  • Laws are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. [1]

Lord Bingham developed a similar list, which outlines what he sees as the 8 key principles of the rule of law:
 

  • The law should be accessible, clear and predictable.
     

  • Questions of legal right and liability should be determined according to law, not by the exercise of discretion.
     

  • The law should apply equally to all, except when objective difference requires differentiation.
     

  • Public officials should exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly, for the purpose for which the powers were conferred, reasonably and without exceeding the limits of such powers.
     

  • The law must protect fundamental rights.
     

  • The state must provide a way of resolving civil disputes at reasonable cost.
     

  • The adjudicative procedures provided by the state should be fair.
     

  • The state must comply with its obligations in international law as in national law. [2]

According to the International Commission of Jurists, the rule of law is “a dynamic concept” that can help establish the social, economic, educational, and cultural conditions to support human dignity. [3]

Although there are different ways to understand and describe the rule of law, there is consensus on its core components. Generally speaking:
 

  • The rule of law refers to a legal system that is governed by law.
     

  • There are rules and means to avoid and minimize the arbitrary use of power.
     

  • The law must be enacted through a proper and formal process.
     

  • The law should protect fundamental rights and be guided by certain values of public good.

[1] United Nations. Report of the Secretary-General on Delivering Justice: Programme of Action to Strengthen the Rule of Law at the National and International Levels. March 16 2012 A/66/749. Available at http://www.un.org/ruleoflaw/files/SGreport%20eng%20A_66_749.pdf.

[2] Lord Bingham. The Rule of Law, 66 Cambridge Law Journal (1), March 2007, pp. 67–85.

[3] International Congress of Jurists, and Norman S. Marsh. 1959. The rule of law in a free society: a report on the International Congress of Jurists, New Delhi, India, January 5-10, 1959. Geneva: International Commission of Jurists. Available at https://www.icj.org/wp-content/uploads/1959/01/Rule-of-law-in-a-free-society-conference-report-1959-eng.pdf.

 

Learn more about the different aspects of the rule of law concept: