This is the first part of a 5 part series which details the basic idea behind the Rule of Law, and proposes the idea of a ‘timetable’ to explain the different components of the concept.
It’s a phrase you probably hear all the time. Used and abused consistently, for proponents of wildly contradictory viewpoints, the Rule of Law is a potent rhetorical catchphrase. But what does it actually mean?
For starters, there’s no single definitive definition. Most people will respond with ideas of trial by jury or due process, perhaps democracy or the separation of powers. Ask enough people and you’ll eventually end up with a laundry list of any and all positive aspects of Western democracies. You may also hear some criticism- that a rule of law locks in inequalities and even class hegemony.
I would like to put forward a simple method of understanding the Rule of Law. It draws inspiration from John Rawls’ metaphor of the ‘Veil of Ignorance’ in understanding Justice (though I harbour no delusions of intellectual equivalence).
The Rule of Law as a Timetable
Imagine a bus timetable. Any timetable would do, but buses work well: I mean the kind you may find at a bus stop, with a route map attached.
What does it tell you? Well to begin with, you know which services are running. While you’ll normally search for the next bus to get to your desired location, you can see every stop in the journey. You can see where the buses go next, and where they come from. You can see how the different routes overlap and cover the designated zone. From that information, you can work out how to take several buses to reach a final end point.
So how does that relate to the Rule of Law? Well, those tracks are like laws. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an Act of Parliament, a decision by a court or an EU regulation- you can see all the laws mapped out and see how they intertwine. Based on this map you can plan your journey. It is the ability for law to guide behaviour that makes up the core of the Rule of Law.
Part 2 will detail the first half of the concept- the inner standards of the Rule of Law.
James Manwaring is an Editor of The Online Society. He studies Law at the University of Warwick.