“Rule of Law” is a term that is frequently unthinkingly used in contemporary political discourse, and which in fact represents different things to different users: when some on the Nationalist Right of politics use if, for example, they actually mean unfettered “rule of parliament”; others mean simple unconstrained, majority rule. But of course it is neither of those things.
“Rule of law” is the idea that it is the law, properly administered by a professional judiciary, that governs a people, not the whims of any monarch or minister, and that no one is above the law. It’s an idea that is said to go back as far as Aristotle, who said “It is better for the law to rule than one of the citizens.” But the idea is at least a hundred years older. Sophocles dramatised it in Oedipus the King, in which, as a result of his own investigation, the King finds himself responsible for the plague on Thebes and realises that he must be held accountable to his own judgement just as anyone else would be.
Bingham develops the idea of rule of law by setting out eight key principles: that the law should be accessible and intelligible; that it should depend on law and not discretion; that it should apply equally; that public officers should not exceed their legal powers; that it should protect fundamental human rights; that legal remedy should be affordable; that adjudicative processes should be fair; and that states should comply with international obligations.
The only failing I found was that Lord Bingham does not consider how the evolution of trans-national corporations challenges the comprehensiveness of the concept he outlines. How can they effectively be held legally accountable? Given the proliferation of these entities and the way in which the political economy of the world is globalising this is a critical omission. But I suppose one can’t have everything. Aside from this it is an exemplary piece of writing and it includes, for good measure, a brutal demolition of the legal case for the 2003 Iraq war.
Particularly as elements of the Right in the UK, including senior politicians and the press, are beginning an assault on the independence of the judiciary this is a vitally important book not just for lawyers but for all citizens.