Rule of law

Laws dictate what we can and cannot do. But they change all the time, they vary from country to country, and are not always applied consistently. So, how does the rule of law actually work?

  • What is the rule of law?

    The principle that everyone in the country has to obey the same rules – even politicians. The Victorian scholar A.V. Dicey said that this ensures a “government of law”, not a “government of men”. He meant that, because the law is the highest authority in the country, rulers are unable to do as they please, as they can in an autocratic system. If they do something illegal, they will be punished.

  • But surely laws change over time?

    Of course. If not, things like blasphemy and gay sex would still be illegal. In Britain, Parliament – the country’s legislature – creates new laws, many of which are proposed by the Government (and sometimes by MPs and campaigners). Laws are closely scrutinised by both Houses of Parliament before they are passed. This ensures that the Government cannot make up new rules on a whim.

  • Aren’t there other ways to change the law?

    You are quite right. Legislation created by Parliament is called “statutory law”. Sometimes, however, judges will have to issue a ruling on an area not clearly covered by statutory law. Their decision will then guide judges presented with similar cases in the future. When judges set a precedent like this, it is known as “case law or common law”.

  • How else can laws be categorised?

    All laws are either criminal or civil, whether statutory or common. Criminal law covers actions like murder, arson and theft. It applies when the wellbeing of society as a whole is at stake.

    Civil law deals with disputes between individuals. Examples are landlord disputes, divorce proceedings and personal injury.

  • I’ve heard of this thing called the Magna Carta…

    Yes: one of the most important documents in the nation’s legal history. In 1215, English noblemen were unhappy at how much power King John had and wanted to place some limitations on him. Magna Carta (its name means “the great charter” in Latin) established for the first time that no one is above the law — not even the monarch.

    Although many of the clauses were ignored in practice and have since been repealed, Magna Carta marked a big turning point in world history. Not only has it informed Britons’ faith in the rule of law, it has inspired similar documents around the globe, such as the United States Bill of Rights.

  • Is everyone treated equally by the law?

    Yes – in theory, at least. In practice, your chances of getting a good outcome in the courts depend on how good your lawyers are. Needless to say, the wealthy can afford better lawyers.

    Everyone in Britain has the right to a fair trial if in legal trouble. Among other things, this means that the state should generally pay for a lawyer for those who cannot afford one. However, in recent years governments have introduced cuts to these funds (known as “legal aid”), reducing access to legal advice for some of the poorest in society.

  • Are laws the same in every country?

    Many laws are broadly similar among Western nations, which also follow the principle of the rule of law. But there are countless differences as well, some of them big. For instance, Americans have the right to buy and own guns.

    Many non-Western countries are governed by different law systems. For example, some Muslim-majority countries, like Saudi Arabia, feature a type of law known as Sharia.

  • What’s the strangest law in Britain?

    There are all sorts of old and bizarre laws which still technically exist, but are no longer used. One example: it is illegal to wear a suit of armour in Parliament. Another: the head of a dead whale found on the British coast automatically belongs to the king, and the tail to the queen.

You Decide

  1. Should all countries be governed by the same laws?


  1. Write a set of 10 to 12 laws for your school. Remember: they will apply to everyone, including staff.

Word Watch

Government in which one person holds all power. One example is the dictatorship in North Korea.
Anti-blasphemy laws, which only covered Christianity, were not repealed until 2008 in Britain.
An organised group of representatives with the power to make laws. By contrast, in Britain “the Government” usually refers only to the Prime mMinister and other ministers whose job as the “executive” is to decide how to implement laws in practice.
Magna Carta included clauses to stop the King from raising taxes at his personal whim, and to give the right to a fair trial to all.
Sharia or Islamic law is derived from the Koran, the Islamic holy book, and the teachings of Islamic scholars. It is applied to varying extents across the Muslim world. Even in non-Muslim nations, Muslims may turn to Sharia scholars for guidance on how to live their lives.
The head of a dead whale
Sturgeons are also covered by this law, but when one was caught in 2004, the royal family declined it.
A.V. Dicey
Albert Venn Dicey, 1835-1922, English author of Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution.

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