The rule of law: what does it really mean?

In a keynote speech at Gray’s Inn on 15 February 2022, I. Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, set out her view of what the rule of law means.
I. Stephanie Boyce speaking at her inauguration as president of the Law Society
Photograph: Michael Cross/Gazette

The rule of law is at the heart of what it means to be a lawyer.

Stephanie’s speech addressed different understandings of the rule of law, and the perception that it can clash with how political institutions operate.

Read Stephanie’s speech about the rule of law

Public perception of the rule of law: fair play

I. Stephanie Boyce discussed findings from the research we commissioned into the public’s understanding of the rule of law.

In our research, we wanted to understand what members of the public thought of the rule of law, and the justice system more generally.

We found that what matters to the public is that the law applies equally to everyone, and that we all follow the rules. They were also against anything that might tilt these rules in favour of one person or group.

Stephanie argued therefore that the public’s understanding of the rule of law is based on one fundamental principle: fair play.

The British people’s focus on respecting the rules of the game and their commitment to fair play ensures an appropriate balance of political and legal authority: parliament makes the law, and the judiciary sees to it that it is applied equally to all.

Tension between the legal and political?

Some believe that political and legal institutions are increasingly in conflict in a way that is damaging to the UK.

Drawing on findings from our research, Stephanie argued that the two systems work together to ensure that fundamental British freedoms are upheld without threatening the principle of parliamentary supremacy.

Although there can be tension, in many ways our unique legal system works alongside our political system to avoid the standoffs that can occur in other sophisticated legal systems across the world.

This coexistence allows the British system to work without the need for higher law, written constitutions or a judiciary that can strike down legislation.

Judicial review and the Human Rights Act

Finally, the president uses this understanding of the rule of law to explain the importance of:

  • ensuring judicial review retains its teeth, and
  • maintaining key rights protections in the Human Rights Act, in light of government reform proposals

Find out more about our views on the proposed judicial review reforms

Read about the proposed Human Rights Act reforms and what this means for solicitors

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