What is the Rule of Law?


At its most basic level the rule of law is the concept that both the government and citizens know the law and obey it.

However the rule of law is also much larger than this. The relevance of the rule of law, and an understanding of its concepts, has its origins in the Magna Carta and the Rule of Law Education Centre uses the Rule of Law Wheel to start discussion about the question “What is the Rule of Law?”  

Under the rule of law, all people should be ruled by just laws subject to the following principles in the outer rim of the wheel.

A good definition of the rule of law that has near universal acceptance states

“…most of the content of the rule of law can be summed up in two points:

(1) that the people (including, one should add, the government) should be ruled by the law and obey it and
(2) that the law should be such that people will be able (and, one should add, willing) to be guided by it.”
– Geoffrey de Q. Walker, The rule of law: foundation of constitutional democracy, (1st Ed., 1988).

The Rule of Law Explained

 Why is the Rule of Law Important for Society?

A country that adheres to the rule of law ensures that –

  • All persons and organisations including the government are subject to and accountable to the law
  • The law is clear, known, and enforced
  • The Court system is independent and resolves disputes in a fair and public manner
  • All persons are presumed innocent until proven otherwise by a Court
  • No person shall be arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned, or deprived of their property
  • Punishment must be determined by a Court and be proportionate to the offence

As a result it can be said that the rule of law is more than simply the government and citizens knowing and obeying the law. The rule of law involves other concepts, such as checks and balances on the use of government power, the independence of the judiciary, the presumption of innocence, access to justice, and the right to a fair trial.

Rule of Law Video

This video introduces the concept of the rule of law and provides some examples of ways in which the concept supports fairness and certainty in the legal system.

What is the Rule of Law? Lecture Series with Kevin Lindgren AM QC

Click here to watch the rule of law lecture series.

Click to view the Lecture Series

The Hon Kevin Lindgren, former Justice of the Federal Court of Australia, was appointed Adjunct Professor of the rule of law at the University of Sydney in 2012. He has lectured extensively on the concept of the rule of law and has produced a paper entitled ‘The Rule of Law: Its State of Health in Australia‘. The Institute has also producing a short lecture series available on our YouTube Channel to capture essential aspects of Professor Lindgren’s lectures such as: