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What Does Rule of Law Mean?

By Claire Gillespie - Updated April 27, 2018
Parchment of the Constitution with a red background

At the heart of every democratic society is the rule of law. Rule of law is based on key democratic principles, such as equality before the law, accountability to the law, separation of powers and participation in decision making. Other elements of rule of law include a strong constitution with constitutional limits on power, an efficient electoral system and a commitment to human rights, gender equality and protecting minorities and other vulnerable groups.

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The rule of law is the principle that law should govern a nation, not the decisions of individual government officials. The rule of law is based on accountability, fair laws, open government and accessible and impartial dispute resolution.

The Rule of Law and the Constitution

While there is no legislative definition of the rule of law, it is widely recognized as being a general principle of constitutional law. Rule of law guarantees access to justice and stops the abuse of official power. In its simplest terms, the rule of law means that all laws should be fair and just. Some principles of the rule of law are accountability, fair regulations, open government and accessible and impartial dispute resolution.

Accountability means the government are just as answerable to the law as are private individuals. Fair laws protect fundamental rights, including human rights, and are clear, transparent and solid. An open government enacts, administers and enforces laws under convenient, just and competent processes. Accessible and impartial dispute resolution ensures that justice is delivered timely by equitable, independent legal representatives who have adequate resources at their disposal and the best interests of their communities at heart.

Rule of Law Examples

Two examples of rule of law are property rights and freedom from corruption. Property rights let people buy private property under state-enforced laws, protects their property from seizure and allows individuals and companies to sanction contract. Freedom from corruption supports economic freedom by keeping economic relationships secure. Corruption and rule of law cannot exist harmoniously. One example of a lack of proper rule of law was South Africa in the apartheid era, where an oppressive, corrupt regime achieved its goals by enforcing unjust laws.

Benefits of the Rule of Law

Rule of law reduces the risk of harm if corrupt individuals end up in power. In contrast to oppressive forms of government, such as dictatorships or autocracies, rule of law supports fundamental rights, such as the right to free speech, free assembly and democracy, thus limiting the control of the government to that which is deemed reasonable.

About the Author

Claire is a qualified lawyer and specialized in family law before becoming a full-time writer. She has written for many digital publications, including The Washington Post, Forbes, Vice and HealthCentral.

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