Rule of Law | Definition & Principles of Rule of Law

Rule of law is a legal concept that implies absolute supremacy of the law. Supremacy of the law in this concept means that the government and its agencies and citizens must obey the law. A.V. Dicey was the first authority that propagated this legal concept, in his book law of the constitution.

According to A.V. Dicey rule of law has three distinct but related meanings. The first is the principle of impartiality, the second is the principle of equality and the third is the right and liberties of individuals.

S.A Desmithon states that rule of law means that the power exercised by politicians and government officials must have legitimate foundation – they must be based on authority conferred by law. Again the law should conform to certain minimum standards of justice both substantive and procedural. Laws must sanction unfair discrimination. A person shall not be deprived of his right or interest unless he is given the opportunity of fair hearing before an impartial court.

Following the different views on the meaning of rule of law, the international commission of jurist an arm of UNESCO held a meeting in New Delhi in 1959 and proclaimed respect for the supreme value of human personality and declared that the rule of law demands that: 1) law should be made by representatives and responsible legislature observing certain minimum standards and principles, 2) executive power should be derived from law and be subject to judicial review, 3) the criminal justice system should be reasonable and fair, 3) the judiciary must be independent and impartial, and legal profession quite alive to it responsibility.

In the words of Ivor Jennings in his book The Queen’s Government “rule of law” can be summoned up thus: “no man (or woman) may be arrested by a policeman unless he has broken the law, nor be kept in prison unless a magistrate or a judge and jury have found him guilty of an offence; nor may he be deprived of his property except by a legal proceeding and then only on payment of compensation; nor may any government official push him around unless the law says he may, and then only if the official strictly obeys all the legal formalities and make certain that the man has a square deal. And if anybody breaks these rules the person concerned is fully entitled to go along and complain to a justice of the peace, or write to the papers and make a fuss or ask his members to raise the question in parliament.


The principle of impartiality, according to A.V. Dicey, is that no one should be punished by the State except for an offence or breach of law proved to the satisfaction of the ordinary courts of the land.

No person should be punished for an offence not written or contained in the law book. What this means is that law should rule people or be a guide. There should be absolute supremacy or preponderance of regular law as opposed to the influence of arbitrary power.

Everybody in a state or an association is morally bound to obey the law and there should be no discrimination in its application. A person arrested by the law enforcement agents must be informed of the offence he committed and shall be charged to court within 24 hours.

The police power of arrest tends to give room to the abuse of this rule, as accused should be deemed innocent until he is found guilty by the ordinary court of law. Such person found guilty should have right to appeal against any irregularity, misapplication or misinterpretation of the law. The crux of the principle is that law should not be discriminatory.


This means that all persons within the state, whatsoever his rank or condition, rich or poor should equally be subject to law of the land. Under this principle, no person should have the privilege of being tried in a special court. An accused person should be given the opportunity of using a lawyer to stand in for his defense.

A person charged with criminal offence is presumed innocent until proven guilty. A person arrested by the police for a criminal offence should be informed in the language he understands of the offence he has committed. Nobody is to be charged of an offence that is not written down in statute and punishment prescribed. Ignorance of the law should not be an excuse for any offence committed.

The principle of inequality according to A.V. Dicey implies that government should be by and under law. All the act of the government and the citizens must be within the realm of the law. It is upon this context that the law is looked upon as the protector of all persons.


The security of the fundamental human right and liberties of the citizens is the concern of the third principles. The fundamental human right and liberties of the citizens must be clearly defined and secured by the constitution for the reign of rule of law to thrive.

The right of the citizens which includes, right to life, right to fair hearing, right to respect the dignity of human person, right to personal liberty, right to freedom of expression, right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and right to freedom of association and assembly must be adequately protected by the constitution.

 It is the protection of these basic rights of the citizens that clearly establish the rule of law. Under this principle, the rights of the citizens must be respected for the law to be obeyed.

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