Rule of Law Legal Definition:

That individuals, persons and government shall submit to, obey and be regulated by law, and not arbitrary action by an individual or a group of individuals.

Related Terms: Judicial Independence , Anarchy , Democracy , Law

A government of law and not of men.

Distinguished from the rule of man where, for example, in a monarchy, tyrannical or theocratic form of government, governance and rules of conduct is set and altered at the discretion of a single person, or a select group of persons.

In a political system which adheres to the paramountcy of the rule of law, the law is supreme over the acts of the government and the people.

According to the United Nations, the rule of law

"... refers to 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."

the lawRetired (and now deceased) Justice Tom Bingham wrote, in a 2010 book entitled Rule of Law, this of the rule of law:

"The core of the ... principle is ... that all persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefits of laws publicly made ... and publicly administered in the courts."

The phrase "rule of law" is often found in contemporary constitutions. For example, Canada's includes the phrase:

"Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law."

In Canada and in the United States, much has been written in constitutional law cases about the rule of law. It has expanded from three words to include justification for the following principles.

  • "Adherence to the rule of law is what guides us in our everyday social and legal interactions, prevents anarchy, and hold us together as a people." (Frens)
  • All are equal in the eyes of the law (References re French Language)
  • Equality in the law as well as before the law (References re French Language)
  • That people should be ruled by the law and obey it (Rossiter)
  • The law should be such that people will be able to be guided by it (Rossiter)
  • "Constitutionalism and the rule of law are cornerstones of the Constitution and reflect our country’s commitment to an orderly and civil society in which all are bound by the enduring rules, principles, and values of our Constitution as the supreme source of law and authority." (Lalonde)
  • "(T)he rule of law refers to the regulation of the relationship between the state and individuals by pre-established and knowable laws.  The state, no less than the individuals it governs, must be subject to and obey the law. The state’s obligation to obey the law is central to the very existence of the rule of law.  Without this obligation, there would be no enforceable limit on the state’s power over individuals...." (Hitzig)
  • "The law in our society is supreme. No one - no politician - no government - no judge - no union - no citizen is above the law. We are all subject to the law. We do not get to pick and choose the laws we will observe and obey. Each of us must accept the rule of all laws, even if we have to hold our noses in complying with some of them." (HEABC)
  • "The rule of law requires that (judicial) decisions be made by a court which is independent of any influence or pressure by the executive and legislative branches of government" (R v Campbell)
  • "(F)irst, that he rule of law provides that the law is supreme over the acts of both government and private persons.  There is, in short, one law for all.  Second, ... the rule of law requires the creation and maintenance of an actual order of positive laws which preserves and embodies the more general principle of normative order... A third aspect of the rule of law is that the exercise of all public power must find its ultimate source in a legal rule.  Put another way, the relationship between the state and the individual must be regulated by law." (Re References re Secession of Quebec)

REFERENCES:

  • Bingham, Tom, The Rule of Law (London: Penguin Books, 2010), page 8.
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Goodness Doesn't Just Happen
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, On The Origins of Law
  • Frens v. State, 831 NYS 2d 347 (2006)
  • HEABC v Facilities Subsector Bargaining Association, 2004 BCSC 603
  • Hitzig v R, 231 DLR 4th 104 (ONCA, 2003)
  • Lalonde v Ontario 2001 208 DLR 4th 577 (ONCA)
  • References re French Language Rights of Accused in Saskatchewan Criminal Proceedings, 1987 5 WWR 577 (SKCA)
  • Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217
  • R v Campbell, [1995] 2 WWR 469 (ABQB)
  • Rossiter v PEI, 139 DLR 4th 87  (1996)
  • U.N. Security Council, The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies: Report of the Secretary-General. (S/2004/616), August 23, 2004 [http://www.unrol.org/files/2004%20report.pdf].

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