The Rule of Law

What is the Rule of Law?

The rule of law is the legal principle that law should govern a nation, as opposed to being governed by arbitrary decisions of individual government officials. In essence, no one is above the law.

The rule of law underpins the very foundations of access to justice, enshrined in the Magna Carta of 1215.  

Magana Carta established, for the first time, due process and the rule of law as fundamental to a successful society.  It was the first document imposed upon a King of England by a group of his subjects, in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their rights.

Magna Carta continues to have a powerful iconic status in British society, being cited by politicians and lawyers in support of constitutional positions.

The rule of law comprises a number of fundamental principles and values.

Legal certainty

The principle of legal certainty means that all laws enacted in the UK must be applied in a precise and predictable manner. This means when legislation is passed to convey a particular purpose, this purpose is carried out within the law. Everyone must be able to have their conduct regulated in a manner that is certain.

Therefore, the laws under which someone is convicted and punished should be passed in the correct legal manner – and that a person’s guilt should only be established through the ordinary trial process.


The rule of law requires that every case which is alike should be treated the same. Each citizen has the right to be protected from unjust discrimination from the state: the state cannot say that one person is below or above another in law, regardless of their rank or status. The law also states that a person cannot be treated unfairly by the state due to their ethnic, sexual or religious views.


All laws and procedures must be freely available to each citizen, and laws which are written down must also be legible to ensure clarity, and prevent unfair discrimination and enforcement. The rule of law also means that the law must be understandable, and the terminology must not be such that a person cannot understand it; nor should legislation be too ambiguous that the reason for its enactment be lost.

Retrospective legislation

The rule of law requires that laws must not be retrospective: a person cannot be tried for an offence if the conduct or behaviour was not an offence when the person committed it. However, this aspect of the rule of law is being watered down, with some legislation having retrospective effect. This means some laws can effectively be broken – before they have even come into force. Two examples are: under the War Crimes Act 1991, and some laws relating to taxation.

Due process

Due process means a person will be imprisoned, or otherwise punished, if there is substantial and sufficient evidence of their guilt. Due process is particularly concerned with people receiving a fair trial rather than proving their guilt. If a person’s liberty is taken away from them and the courts cannot demonstrate their guilt by evidence, then they may be entitled to be awarded damages for the loss of their personal liberty.

Let’s not forget there are many different types of Laws, those that are written in constitutions, those that are taught to us by our friends or families, and those which we develop to govern relationships with others and cognitively experience the world.

A country without laws and government would be anarchy.

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