The importance of rule of law

For rule of law to be effective, it must be properly implemented

The importance of rule of law


ule of law is no more than the notion that governments should work through general legislation that applies to the governors as well and not through irregular decrees and ad hominem proclamations. Rule of law allows people to accurately foresee the legal consequences of their actions. Citizens are thus not subject to ‘surprises’ whether or not those take the form of legislation.

The laws may also contain or at least not violate certain substantive principles and rights. Rule of law, defended by an independent judiciary, has a crucial function in ensuring that civil and political rights and civil liberties are safe. It also ensures that the equality and dignity of citizens is secure.

Rule of law serves as a safeguard against tyranny in that fair, just and impartial laws ensure that rulers do not become corrupt or despotic. Such laws protect individuals from the government, organisations and other individuals.

The establishment of a welfare state is a cherished goal. Rule of law sustains it. Rule of law implies a durable system of laws, institutions, norms and community commitments that delivers accountability. Both the government and private actors are accountable under the laws that are clear, publicised, stable, and applied evenly.

Rule of law is closely linked to the ideals of democracy. A democratic state is one where citizens elect their leaders and the government is bound by the law.

Every individual is entitled to enjoy their human rights without any form of distinction or discrimination. Equality is paramount for rule of law. Everyone must be treated the same; there should be no discrimination whatsoever.

The right to equal protection of law is a fundamental principle in a democratic society. It guarantees that regardless of an individual’s economic status, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation, they are entitled to the same protection.

The concept comprises three fundamental principles. First, no individual should be punished or interfered with by authorities unless they have violated the law. Second, the law applies to everyone, regardless of their status; no one is above it. Third, a bill of rights is unnecessary because judicial decisions determine the general principles of the constitution and the rights of private individuals.

The International Commission of Jurists, in a conference held in Lagos in 1961, defined the rule of law as adherence to essential institutions and procedures that have been developed in various countries through experience and tradition to protect individuals from arbitrary government and enable them to enjoy the dignity of human rights.

This definition highlights the importance of the rule of law in a democracy. Without it, a democratic society cannot exist. All members of society, including those in authority, must be subject to the law. The rule of law is essential in treating all individuals equally as full members of the community, without discrimination. The order maintained by the rule of law promotes communal good, which allows the private good of individuals to be realised.

The rule of law has two fundamental aspects. First, the law must rule the people and the people must obey the law. Second, the law must be capable of being obeyed and guiding people’s behaviour. Both these aspects are indispensable for a well-functioning society. The first aspect prevents legalism where citizens become slaves to the law, forgetting the spirit behind it. The second aspect avoids presumption that one can break the law without consequences.

In any democratic society, it is imperative to inculcate the rule of law through education, good examples and consistent application. It is a sine qua non for the realisation of communal and individual values.

In developing societies, the absence of rule of law manifests itself in various forms. These include disregard and manipulation of the constitution and elections; abuse of political power; legal and judicial perversions; and low regard for the electorates.

As Kofi Busia noted in his paper, Democracy and One Party System, effective checks on rulers are necessary in every democratic community. Democracy rejects the notion that the leaders and those around them always seek the interests of the people or embody the will of all. Human fallibility necessitates the right of the people to oppose and change their leaders, which political institutions must provide democratic outlets for.

This is not the case in many developing societies, especially in Asia and Africa where electorates are frequently forced to succumb to the whims of the “selected” few due to arbitrary disobedience to judicial proceedings by the executives. In practice, the judiciary is not independent and autonomous. It is instead subject to the whims and caprice of those in power.

Rule of law must guarantee security of tenure - a fundamental safeguard against arbitrary removal of judicial officers, which should only occur under exceptional circumstances and after lawful consideration by a judicial commission.

Rule of law is a valuable asset to democracy. It promotes responsibility, reciprocity and trust. As Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty, the belief in individual responsibility has always been strong when people firmly believed in individual freedom. Democracy must guarantee individual freedom and collective fraternity and responsibility must be an effect of such liberty accorded to the people.

Accountability is essential. It connotes managerial responsibility, efficiency and economy of operation as well as managerial responsibility for effectiveness. For responsibility to be a value in a democratic system, the leaders must be accountable and transparent.

Reciprocity is a value that rule of law promotes to attain good governance. This allows individuals to perform their duties to the state, such as paying necessary taxes and abiding by the rules and regulations. In response, those at the helms of affairs provide necessary amenities and resources for the progress, growth and development of the state.

Respect for shared values, norms, rules, laws and regulations are a matter of reciprocity. The rule of law ensures that all, including the leaders, respect the laws of the land.

Trust is necessary for the rule of law to be effective. Rule of law must be properly implemented and functional to gain the trust of the ruled. Separation of powers, judicial precedent and prospective legislation cannot guarantee citizens’ trust unless the system is functional.

In countries where the electorates lack trust in their rulers, even when there is a constitution to follow, the quest for good governance is jeopardised. Trust can only come when leaders are guided by a functional rule of law in the spirit of ensuring good governance.

Political institutions must provide democratic outlets for the exercise of rights and guarantee accountability and transparency of the leaders.

Respect for shared values and norms are essential for promoting reciprocity in the society.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore. He can be reached at

The importance of rule of law