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.
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.”
Central to the wheel and the rule of law is the concept that no one is above the law – it is applied equally and fairly to both the government and citizens. This means that all people, regardless of their status, race, culture, religion, or any other attribute, should be ruled equally by just laws.
Beyond this, the outer edge of the wheel illustrates a number of interrelated principles that reflect the rule of law in Australia, such as the presumption of innocence, and fair and prompt trials.
These principles can be considered essential elements that contribute to maintaining the rule of law. Without these, the wheel would fail to turn and Australia’s rule of law would not continue to be upheld and maintained.
Another essential element is that these principles and Australia’s rule of law is supported by informed and active citizens. Without responsible and engaged citizens, society is unable to work together to uphold important principles and values which support our rule of law and democratic society.
The Rule of Law Explained
Judge Culver of the District Court of NSW outlines the essential features of the rule of law.
Her Honour then illustrates the rule of law in action with a fictional case of someone being given a package by a stranger and the differing treatment by the police and courts depending if the rule of law is alive and well.
The Magna Carta established the rule of law and the idea that all citizens, including those in power, should be fairly and equally ruled by the law.
The Magna Carta ensured the King is no longer above the law, people are ruled by the law and the law alone, there is a qualified Independent Judiciary, confidence in Fair Process and the law is known by all.
Why is the Rule of Law Important for Society?
The rule of law is important because a country that adheres to the rule of law results in a society in which:
- All persons and organisations including the government are subject to and accountable to the law
- The law is known and accessible
- The Court system is independent and resolves disputes in an open and impartial manner
- All persons are presumed innocent until proven otherwise by a Court
- All persons have the right to a fair and prompt trial
- No person should be arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned, or deprived of their property
- Punishment is determined by a Court and people can only be punished in accordance with the law.
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 ideals, for example that citizens remain active and informed and participate in the creation of just laws which regulate their behaviour and protect human rights.
At its heart, the Rule of Law is an ideal or an aspiration, that members of a society must continuously work towards.
The rule of law is essential in maintaining a free, democratic and fair society.
Lecture Series with Kevin Lindgren AM QC
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‘.
Professor Lindgren’s other lectures include: