The Rule of Law

The rule of law is a fundamental doctrine by which every individual must obey and submit to the law, and not arbitrary action by other people of groups. In essence, no one is above the law. The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution. The rule of law, along with Parliamentary Sovereignty and court rulings, is fundamentally the defining principle of our ‘unwritten constitution’. 

In general, the rule of law implies that laws which are created by legitimate means and exercised in a manner which is legally regulated, meams that no one—including the most highly placed official—is above the law.The legal constraint on rulers means that the government is subject to existing laws as much as its citizens are. 

Therefore a closely related notion is the idea of equality before the law, which holds that no “legal” person shall enjoy privileges that are not extended to all and that no person shall be immune from legal sanctions. 

In addition, the application and adjudication of legal rules by various governing officials are to be impartial and consistent across equivalent cases, made blindly without taking into consideration the class, status, or relative power among disputants. 

In order for those ideas to have any real purchase, moreover, there should be in place some legal apparatus for compelling officials to submit to the law.

How well is the rule of law applied in the UK?

The rule of law is seen as an important element of liberal democracy which ensure that governments are limited by legal restraints however the UK is criticised for having an elective dictatorship since governments dominate the law making process. for example


The increasing activism of the UK Supreme Court and its willingness to use Judicial Review to limit government actions and up hold rights has improved the exercise of the Rule of Law. For example the Supreme Court ruling in November 2023 that the transfer of asylum seekers to Rwanda was illegal The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak responded to the judgment stating he would introduce emergency legislation declaring Rwanda is a safe country, and that the policy would not be stopped by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The Supreme Court (or any court, including the ECtHR) cannot strike down an Act of Parliament. 

An example of the exercise of the Rule of Law is Boris Johnson being questioned under caution by the police and later being given a fixed penalty notice following the 'Party gate affair'

There have also been criticisms of the UK's Judicial Independence and Judicial Neutrality 

However  reforms such as the creation of a Supreme Court, The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which created an independent appointments process for judges and  The Human Rights Act are seen to have strengthened the rule of law in the UK.

Mark Elliott. Mark is Professor of Public Law and Chair of the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge.