In any civilized society, Laws are made to protect the interests of the citizens such as their lives and properties and not to oppress them. If these laws that guide the rights and dictate the powers and functions of the leaders and the people being lead are seen to be working well, then it must necessarily follow certain rules. This rules that defines rule of law is the absolute supremacy or predominance of the law over everybody both the rulers and the ruled.
This presupposes that men should rule according to the law as stated and not according to their own whims and caprices. This means that government should rule according to the provisions of the constitution and the government should be subject to the law and not above it.
The doctrine of the rule of law was propounded by Professor A.V Dicey in 1885. The doctrine has certain principles.
Principles of the Rule of Law
1. Supremacy of the Law: For the laws made to govern the actions of government and people to work very well, it must have absolute supremacy or predominance over everybody in the country. This suggests that law must be unique, known and powerful well and above everyone living within the confines of the country.
2. The Principles of Equality before the Law: This implies that everybody is equal in the eyes of the law. The law is no respecter of persons. Whether you are rich or poor, young or old, literate or illiterate, government official or ordinary citizen, the same law applies to us all. To this extent, if the ruler and the ruled commit the same offence, the two should be given the same punishment. The law should not be bent to honour the status, rank or position of a person.
3. The Principle of individual Rights: Laws are made in a country to protect the interest of the citizens. If the law is to be seen to work well, it must preserve and protect the rights and freedoms of individuals. Every person has a right to life, no person shall be subjected to torture or to any form of inhuman or degrading treatment and he also have the right to work, personal safety, education, property and the right to vote and to stand as a candidate for election. While it is the duty of the state to provide necessary rights and liberties to citizens in order to ensure greater happiness of individual, it is the citizens’ moral obligation to refrain from interfering with the rights and freedom of other citizens. It is to this end that the fundamental human rights are entrenched in modern constitutions.
Limitations & Exceptions to the Rule of Law
1. Delegated Legislation: The grant of discretionary powers to Government Officials to enable them perform their duties effectively can be used against the citizens. Officials can make statutory regulations that when administered will abuse the rights and liberties of individuals.
2. Diplomatic Immunity: Ambassadors and diplomats cannot be sued and prosecuted in countries where they are serving as they are treated as above the law of the host country, rather they can be repatriated. This undermines the principle of equality of everybody before the law.
3. Existence of Administrative Tribunals or Special Courts: These courts and tribunals use special procedures that are not observed in civil courts. This makes justice obtained in such courts not to be in consonance with the rule of law. More so, most of the judgements of such tribunals forbids individual rights of appeal.
4. Special Privileges: There are some certain individuals that are immune against the law of the country. Such people include the President and the Vice President, Governors, members of the Parliament (National Assembly) and some other high ranking government officials. Judges are immune from law while adjudicating in the court. This is to make them to carry out their duty without fear or favour.
5. State of Emergency and War: During certain conditions that are critical which may make the government to declare a state of emergency or when there is war, government usually invoke certain discretionary powers. These powers when exercised by the government usually denies individuals part of their fundamental human rights as people may be confined to their homes or restricted from carrying out certain activities or individuals may be forced to go and fight war to defend their country even if it is against their wish.
6. Poverty, Illiteracy and Ignorance: Most people especially in developing countries are illiterates. They do not know how to read and write; hence, they cannot read and comprehend their rights as entrenched in the constitution. Sometimes, when they can read, they are ignorant of what constitutes their rights. While the level of poverty in the country do not allow them to pursue or sue anyone that infringed their rights.