The rule of law is a fundamental principle underpinning the constitution of the United Kingdom. We can think about it in different ways:
- As a principle about protecting rights and liberties. This requires that a person’s rights and obligations are determined by the law, that wrongs are punished according to law and that everyone is subject to the law.
- As a principle about legality, requiring that everything must be done in accordance with the law. For example, a public authority must not do something which affects a person’s rights or liberty (e.g. decide to refuse planning permission) unless Parliament or the National Assembly has given it authority to do so, either in an Act of Parliament or Assembly Act, or indirectly by subordinate legislation.
- As a principle about certainty and predictability and preventing the abuse of discretionary power. The rule of law requires that government is carried out within a stable framework of rules and principles which place appropriate restrictions on the exercise of power. This is why the judiciary has developed a series of administrative law rules (see here) which public bodies are required to observe when exercising discretionary powers.
- As a principle about judicial independence, or that no one should be judge in his or her own cause. Therefore, disputes about the legality of something done by the government are decided by a judiciary which is independent of the government.
- As a principle about fairness as between the government and its citizens. In other words, public bodies should generally be subject to the same legal duties and liabilities as individuals, unless this is inconsistent with their government functions.
- As a principle about providing access to justice. The rule of law requires that procedures for determining legal disputes must be fair, and must not involve inordinate delay or prohibitive cost.
- As a principle about upholding fundamental human rights and the United Kingdom’s compliance with its obligations under international law.
- As a principle about how the law is written down and published. The rule of law requires that the law is written in language that is, so far as possible, clear and free from ambiguity. Laws must avoid contradictions and must not command the impossible. Laws must be forward looking (prospective), in other words they must not be backdated (retrospective). Laws must also be freely available.
The rule of law must be observed at all stages of the law making process. It is relevant when deciding the content of laws, when drafting laws and when public bodies and the courts administer and enforce the law.