The rule of law: what is it, and why does it matter?

The rule of law is a fundamental principle underpinning the UK constitution. Its core principles include limits on state power, protection for fundamental rights and judicial independence. Lisa James and Jan van Zyl Smit argue that upholding the rule of law is a responsibility shared between politicians, officials and the public – with ministers and MPs having important roles to play.  

Background

The rule of law is frequently cited in political debate, and is a key topic monitored by those worried about democratic backsliding. But what is it, and why is it so important?

The rule of law is one of the fundamental principles underpinning constitutional democracies, and its importance is not seriously questioned in any modern democratic state. But like other constitutional principles, long-running debates exist about how it can most effectively be implemented.

This briefing explains the central concepts constituting the rule of law under three broad categories:

  1. Legality and legal certainty
  2. Legal equality and fundamental rights
  3. Judicial independence and access to justice

Why does the rule of law matter?

The rule of law prevents the abuse of state power, requires the law to be followed by all, and ensures that legal rights are fulfilled in practice. It also provides the means for various other core aspects of democracy to be safeguarded – for example, making certain that the laws made by parliament are enforced, and that fair conduct of elections can be guaranteed. More broadly, it underpins social functioning by providing fair and legitimate routes for disputes to be settled. And it supports stable economies and economic growth by upholding property rights, facilitating the elimination of corruption, and maintaining a business environment in which contracts are enforced, and international trade and investment can flourish. The rule of law alone is not sufficient to make a state democratic, but a state which does not observe it cannot be a healthy democracy.

As such, the rule of law has long been recognised as a fundamental part of the UK system. Many of its core aspects were established during the seventeenth century – particularly by the Bill of Rights 1689. Nineteenth-century scholar Albert Venn Dicey considered it, alongside parliamentary sovereignty, one of the ‘twin pillars’ of the constitution. More recently, Margaret Thatcher considered its observance central to Conservatism, arguing that ‘the institution of democracy alone is not enough. Liberty can only flourish under a rule of law’. And the 2001 Labour government recognised its importance as an existing principle in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005.

What does the rule of law cover?

Like other fundamental principles, the precise details of the rule of law are debated, but its central tenets are widely recognised. Lord (Tom) Bingham of Cornhill, a former Senior Law Lord, provided one well-known schema, on which the Venice Commission’s Rule of Law tools for assessing constitutional reforms are based. Another influential definition was given by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who defined the rule of law as:

…a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.

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The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 led to greater judicial independence: politicians and parliament must continue to support it

As part of an ongoing inquiry, the Lords Constitution Committee has sought evidence as to whether ‘the amendment of the role of the Lord Chancellor by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (CRA), and the resulting separation of powers between the judiciary and the Government, [have] been successful’. Robert Hazell argues that the 2005 reforms led to greater judicial independence, a political achievement that requires continuing support from politicians and parliament.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the role of the Lord Chancellor and the Law Officers, in which it seeks to answer a number of questions, including whether ‘the amendment of the role of the Lord Chancellor by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (CRA), and the resulting separation of powers between the judiciary and the Government, [have] been successful’. Through written evidence, submitted with Professor Kate Malleson, I have attempted to answer that question. Our answers were based upon the main findings and conclusions of a three-year research project on the Politics of Judicial Independence, funded by the AHRC. The research explored the impact of the greater separation of powers introduced by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (CRA). Our principal conclusion – as explained in our 2015 book on the subject – was that judicial independence and judicial accountability have emerged stronger, not weaker; but that greater separation of powers requires increased engagement by the judiciary with other branches of government.

The changes made by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005

Until 2005 the head of the judiciary was a Cabinet minister, the Lord Chancellor. In an extraordinary breach of separation of powers, he could also sit as a judge in the UK’s highest court. The CRA removed the Lord Chancellor as head of the judiciary, handing that responsibility to the Lord Chief Justice in line with an agreement struck in the Concordat of 2004. The division of powers between the executive and judiciary was further refined in 2008 in a Framework Document for the management of the Courts Service (revised and updated in 2011 to incorporate the Tribunals Service). The CRA also created a new Supreme Court, and established the Judicial Appointments Commission.

The new politics of judicial independence are more formal, fragmented, and politicised

The old politics were informal, depending on regular meetings between the Lord Chancellor and senior judges; closed, in that these were virtually the only contacts between the judiciary and the government; and secretive, with both sides preserving each other’s confidences. They were also consensual and conservative, in that neither side wanted to change the system. The ‘new’ politics, by contrast, are much more formal. The CRA required more formal structures and processes to handle the relationships between more separate branches of government. We now have the Judicial Appointments Commission, Judicial Appointments and Conduct Ombudsman, and Judicial Conduct Investigations Office: all products of the CRA. The new formal processes include regular meetings between the judiciary and other branches of government, with the innovation of six-monthly meetings between the LCJ and Prime Minister, the introduction of regular meetings with senior officials in parliament, and annual appearances by the LCJ and President of the Supreme Court before the Constitution Committee.

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Partygate illustrates the fundamental constitutional responsibility of government MPs

Boris Johnson and his Chancellor have now been fined for breaking lockdown restrictions. Both have misled parliament over Downing Street parties. These are clear breaches of the Ministerial Code, which should lead to resignation. If the PM refuses to police the Code, says Meg Russell, that constitutional responsibility rests with MPs. A failure to exercise it would seriously undermine both the integrity of, and public trust in, the democratic system.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have been issued fixed penalty notices for breaching COVID-19 lockdown rules over parties in Downing Street. This means that they have broken the Ministerial Code on two counts. Paragraph 1.3 emphasises ‘the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life’. But the police have concluded that the law has been broken. Paragraph 1.3c of the Code then states that:

It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.

But it has been clear for some time that Johnson breached this rule, by repeatedly insisting in the House of Commons that all regulations were followed, and denying knowledge of Downing Street parties, when it subsequently emerged that he had attended such gatherings. Multiple sources have catalogued these denials. Rishi Sunak also said on the parliamentary record that he ‘did not attend any parties’.

But the final line of paragraph 1.3c is the rub. While both of these forms of breach would normally be considered resigning matters, the ultimate keeper of the Code is the Prime Minister himself. He has already faced down criticism over failing to uphold it in the case of bullying allegations against Home Secretary Priti Patel, which led to the resignation of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. Both Johnson and Sunak have insisted that they are not going to resign, indicating that the Prime Minister is once again setting aside the Code – this time over multiple breaches, which are highly publicly salient.

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Parliament has the right to reverse judicial decisions, but governments must be careful not to undermine the important role the courts play as a check and balance in our unwritten constitution

The Independent Review of Administrative Law provoked much criticism and concern when it was announced by the government, but its final report was less radical than many predicted. In the last of our series of posts from speakers at our June conference on the government’s reform agenda, Lord Faulks speaks of the work of the review panel, which he chaired, and the government bill that resulted, which went further than the review recommended in terms of limiting judicial review.

The government has now published the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which has had its first reading in the House of Commons and will proceed through its remaining parliamentary stages in the autumn.

The Independent Review of Administrative Law, which I had the privilege of chairing, will now be a footnote in the development of the law in relation to judicial review. The panel no longer exists and its members have returned to their normal pursuits

I would like to think, however, that we made a useful contribution to the debate. There were some commentators who thought the setting up of the review was ‘sinister’ and that our conclusions would inevitably lead to the radical reform of judicial review. I can assure those who said this that the review was genuinely independent, in the sense that we reached our conclusions entirely free from any interference by government. We were, however, influenced by the many high quality submissions that we received. Whatever our preliminary views might have been, we approached our task in an open way and without any predetermined conclusions.

The response by the government was at least initially, that it wanted to go further and it set in motion a further consultation. That was a course, it seemed to me, that it was entirely open to it.

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