What is the Rule of Law and why is it an important principle of the UK Constitution?

The Law of the Constitution is AV DIcey’s most famous work.

Along with Parliamentary Sovereignty, the Victorian constitutional scholar A.V Dicey called the Rule of Law one of the ‘twin pillars of the UK constitution’. By this, he meant it was one of the things that was fundamental in making the UK constitution what it is. So, what is meant by the Rule of Law and why is it so significant?

What is meant by the Rule of Law?

The concept of the rule of law is an ancient one. It refers to a society in which bodies of law govern how society is run and the law is given primacy within society. It has since been fundamental to any functioning state, all of which are governed by the rule of law. However, in modern liberal democracies, like that in Britain, it has taken a more defined meaning.

In his book ‘Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution’ AV Dicey became the first scholar to codify the rule of law as it pertains to Britain. His formulation of the Rule of Law is still accepted today.

How did A.V Dicey codify the Rule of Law?

A.V Dicey said there were three aspects to the Rule of Law:

  1. The government is limited by established laws.

An important principle of liberal democracy is placing clear limits on the powers of the government to avoid tyranny. These limits are less evident in the UK, where it is often said that an ‘elective dictatorship’ exists. However, the UK Government is still clearly limited by the law.

An example of this occurred in HM Treasury v. Ahmed. In 2006 Parliament passed a Government Bill that had a clause that allowed the freezing of the financial assets of suspected terrorists. A terror suspect named Mohammed Jabar Ahmed was one of those that had his assets frozen. He argued that this had no legal basis as he had not been found guilty of any crime. The case went all the way to the UK Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that the Government had acted ‘Ultra Vires’ (beyond its power) and had not followed international law or in establishing the right to freeze the aspects of suspected terrorists.

UK Supreme Court
In HM Treasury v. Ahmed the UK Supreme Court rule that the Government had acted ‘Ultra Vires’.

This led to the government changing the law by passing a new act that specifically allowed for asset freezing, this was called the Terrorist Asset-Freezing Act 2010. This is a good example of how the Rule of Law and Parliamentary Sovereignty are intertwined and how Parliamentary Sovereignty is the supreme principle of the UK constitution.

2. Everyone is equal under the law.

This principle ensures that everyone is treated the same under the law. This prevents the rich and powerful from avoiding legal processes. The principle is also designed to protect minorities, so people are treated equally under the law regardless of demographic factors such as age, colour or religion.

Boris Johnson was the first sitting PM to be prosecuted.

A prime example of equality under the law in action is that even the Prime Minister can be questioned by the Police when they are investigating a crime. This occurred in 2007 when Tony Blair was twice interviewed by the police over the ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal. Even more notably, Boris Johnson was interviewed under caution by the Police over the Partygate Affair and subsequently given a Fixed Penalty Notice.

Barristers went on strike this year over cuts to legal aid.

There are criticisms in Britain that this principle is not fully implemented. One reason for this is that legal action is incredibly expensive. This means that the rich are at a major advantage within the criminal justice system. This is particularly the case since 2013 when the Coalition Government made controversial cuts to the legal aid system.

3. The law must be administered by an independent judiciary.

This aspect of the Rule of Law is crucial. In countries where the rule of law is less established it is not uncommon for judges to be overtly political. This was seen in the ‘Show Trials’ that took place in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. In Britain, judges are expected to be independent of Politics.

Traditionally, this independence was more questionable. Before 1994 the Lord Chancellor appointed Senior Judges without any scrutiny or oversight. However, since the Constitutional Reform Act (2005) a new Judicial Appointments Commission has been established to try to ensure that the appointment of judges is objective and impartial. This has also helped to tackle the perceived conservative bias that existed due to judges being from a similar background, which usually included Public Schools and Oxbridge.

The Rule of Law is fundamental to the British constitution. However, it is always important to remember that what the law is constantly changes, with Statute Law being passed and Common Law being developed.

Article Summary

A.V Dicey called the Rule of Law one of the Twin Pillars of the UK Constitution. The other is Parliamentary Sovereignty. The Rule of Law is fundamental to liberal democracies and a state without the rule of law is not able to be considered a liberal democracy.

Key Terms

Twin Pillars of the Constitution – The collective term given by AV Dicey for the importance of Parliamentary Sovereignty and the Rule of Law in upholding the UK constitution.

Rule of Law – The concept of a society in which a society in which bodies of law govern how society is run and the law is given primacy within society

Constitutional Reform Act (2005) – An act passed by the Labour Government that reformed the judicial system of the UK, including reducing the power of the Lord Chancellor and creating a Supreme Court. It also set up a Judicial Appointment Committee.

Judicial Appointments Commission – The Committee established as part of the Constitutional Reform Act to recommend appointments to the Senior Judiciary. Before this commission, the power was largely in the hands of the Lord Chancellor.

Partygate – A political scandal involving the breach of COVID-19 by senior Ministers and Civil Servants, including the Prime Minister.

Cash for Honours Scandal – A scandal in 2007 surrounding the Labour Party and nomination made to the House of Lords for those who had donated money to the party.

HM Treasury v. Ahmed – A Supreme Court case in 2009 involving the freezing of the aspects of suspected terror suspects.

UK Supreme Court – The highest court in the UK. It was set up as part of the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005. It is the highest court in both civil and legal matters.

Ultra Vires – The legal term for acting beyond ones pwoers.

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