The Rule of Law
What is the Rule of Law?
The Rule of Law is the idea or principle that that everyone – no matter who they are – is equal before the law and must follow it. In a fair society, nobody – no matter how wealthy, famous, clever and popular they are – is above the law.
The actions of everyone can be challenged in court, even the actions of politicians who make our laws can be and have been challenged.
Laws must be created by parliament through a set process.
This is so other people can see how the law is created and giving them an opportunity to challenge it if they think it is unfair.
Nobody, not even the Prime Minister, can create laws without going through the correct process.
This prevents one person or group taking charge and only acting in their self-interest, whilst being unfair to others.
Lord Bingham and his 8 Principles
Lord Bingham (1933-2010), a former president of the Supreme Court is famous for his work to explain the Rule of Law to people. He said:
‘In a world divided by differences of nationality, race, colour, religion and wealth the rule of law is one of the greatest unifying factors, perhaps the greatest… It remains an ideal, but an ideal worth striving for, in the interests of good government and peace, at home and in the world at large.’
In his book ‘The Rule of Law’ published in 2010, Lord Bingham set out these 8 Principles which he saw as being the key ingredients of the Rule of law. These were:
People must be able to understand the law. It must be accessible, intelligible, clear and predictable.
Questions about people’s legal rights and responsibilities should be worked out by the exercise of the law and not discretion.
Laws should apply equally to all.
Government ministers, judges and the police must use their powers fairly.
The law must protect Human Rights.
A way of sorting out law-related arguments between people should be provided by the state.
The adjudicative procedures provided by the state should be fair.
The rule of law requires compliance by the state with its obligations in international as well as national laws.
The Rule of Law in Action: Brexit
After the Brexit referendum, in June 2016, the Government set about its initial actions to start the process of leaving the European Union (EU). The first step was to formally tell the EU of Britain’s intention to leave by triggering Article 50 – the legal mechanism removing the UK out of the EU. The Government said it could do this without a vote in Parliament. Later, in August 2019, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Parliament would be suspended for 5 weeks running up to the initial Brexit deadline on 31st October 2019.
However, others disagreed with the government and believed the government was not following the Rule of Law. They believed that parliamentary process had not being followed correctly. Gina Miller, a businesswoman, led two legal challenges against the government and won. The cases were heard by the Supreme Court who ruled that a vote by Parliament was needed to begin the process that would trigger Article 50 and that it was wrong to suspend parliament.
To explore these ideas further you can:
Afua Hirsch and Henny Beaumont, Equal to Everything. The book explains how the rule of law underpins a fair and equal society. It looks at cases from the career of Lady Hale, the former President of the Supreme Court. (Audience 5 to 11 years)
Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird. This classic, set in 1930s Alabama in the United States, examines what can happen when the rule of law breaks down and the injustices it leads too. (Audience 13 plus)
The World Justice project has created a Rule of Law Index which gives an insight into how the Rule of Law is experienced and perceived worldwide. (Audience 14 plus)
The Northern Ireland Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) have created a lesson for learning about the Rule of Law (see lesson 1). (Audience 11 to 16)