Rule of Law and English Legal System (PART II: Dicey; Adler)


According to: Dicey (1902); Heuston (1964); the Report of the Committee on Ministers’ Powers (1932); … the Principium of the Supremacy of Law born in the Middle Ages. Then, it was challenged and questioned only during the Stuart time. Some evidences, which are usually used, are:

  1. according to M. Allen et al. (1994), the Bracton principle: “quod Rex non debet esse sub homine sed sub Deo et Lege” quoted by the King in the Prohibitions del Roy (1607);
  2. the Petition of Right (1628);
  3. the abolition of the: Court of the Star Chamber; and Privy Council’s jurisdiction in England (1641);
  4. the Glorious Revolution (1688);
  5. the Dicey’s Doctrine on Rule of Law (1885);
  6. and, the Report of the Committee on Ministers’ Powers (1932).

The work of Dicey has strongly been influential. Indeed, Dicey represents the final highest peak of the conceptualization of Rule of Law.

On the contrary, the Report of the Committee on Ministers’ Powers (1932) is an “Official Recognition”. The Report states: “The supremacy or rule of law of the Land is a recognised principle of the English Constitution”. According to the Report, it has always been a living part of English Law since the Middle Age.

Although Rule of Law have been recognized a characteristic of English Politics and Legal System since the Norman Conquest (Dicey, 1902)[1], Role of Law has always been a nebulous concept, at the end.

On one hand, everybody agrees that Rule of Law has been a fundamental principle of English Legal System. On the other hand, nobody knows what Rule of Law means!! Actually, it should be a very useful principle!!

Hence, our first Quest is to answer at the question: “What does Rule of Law mean?”

For answering at the question, the Dicey’s work should be examined.


Dicey (1902) affirmed Role of Law to include three different principia:

  1. The Absolute Supremacy of the Regular Law as opposed to Arbitrary Power;
  2. The Equality of every man in front of the Law. This principle includes two aspects: a) everyone has to obey to the Law; b) everyone is subordinated at ordinary tribunals’ jurisdiction;
  3. The belief that: “the law of the constitution … are not the source but the consequence of the rights of individuals, as defined and enforced by courts”.

Whereas these three principia seem “reasonable” at a first consideration, they hide plenty of trickeries and practical problems. The latters make them be: void concepts. At the end, they drop to be political slogan, propaganda and marketing! Nothing more! Nothing less! Indeed, they have been used in very different manners as History proved.

First Principle

According to Dicey, the first principle affirms: “… no man is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer in body or goods except for a distinct breach of law established in the ordinary legal manner before the ordinary Courts of land. In this sense the rule of law is contrasted with every system of government based on the exercise by persons in authority of wide, arbitrary, or discretionary powers of constraint”.

This principle seems to be affirmed by Courts in different times. For instance, in Black – Clawson LTD v. Papierwerke waldhof aschaffenburg AC (1975), Diplock stated: “The acceptance of rule of law as a constitutional principle requires that a citizen, before committing himself to any course of action, should be able to know in advance what are the legal consequences that will flow from it”[2].

Although this principle appears to be plain in the English constitutionalism, it is not as plain as it can appear. Indeed, it is not possible to define clear boundaries between an arbitrary use of power and “what” it is not!

Although Dicey (1902) stated this principle to be able to limit the arbitrary power, Heuston (1964) gave contrary evidences. Heuston (1964) wrote that it is “difficult to distinguish between regular law and arbitrary power”. For instance, Law can give arbitrary power to someone. In this case, the two dimensions overlap!! Heuston (1964) presented two historical leading cases. The first one happened in 1627. The Court of King’s Bench, in Darnel’s Case, granted the King of a common law legal power to imprison anyone on suspicion without cause shown!! The second one happened in 1941. The House of Lords, in Liversidge v. Anderson, recognized the legitimacy of statutory legal power (similar to the previous) granted by the Parliament to the Home Secretary!!

As a result, Heuston (1964) affirmed that the supremacy of law simply requires that everyone (in any position) “must be prepared to justify his acts by reference to some statutory or common law power which authorises him to act precisely in the way in which he claims he can act”. Therefore, Rule of Law does NOT limit any arbitrary power[3].  It means only that power should be given by Law. Nevertheless, even this is not so plain[4]!! As I told supra (above), a nebulous concept allows to be applied in very different manners from case to case. At the end, a “different” Legal System exists for everyone! But, this is nothing, really nothing, if You compare: Law; with Psychology. Whereas the former is still bound by facts, the latter is just pure fantasy of the Psychologists!! Nowadays, the huge abuses are done, indeed, with Psychology.

On the contrary, Dicey affirmed that supremacy of law “excludes the existence even of wide discretionary authority on the part of the government”. But, English Legal History proved this to be untrue!!

According to Jennings (1943), Dicey’s ideas derived from the doctrine of laissez – faire. In other words, Dicey described his political choices rather than empirical facts about English Constitution. Jennings (1943) observed that Dicey neglected completely: both, the existing wide Discretional Powers of the Public Authorities and Government; and, the Unlimited Power of the Parliament.

“Parliament … can pass what legislation it pleases. It is not limited by any written constitution. Its powers are not only wide, but unlimited.” (Jennings I., 1943).

 Sovereignty of the Parliament Versus Rule of Law

The principium of Sovereignty of the Parliament prevails onto Rule of Law as there are not any substantial principles and/or values able to limit the former. All the attempts, which were made[5], failed.

According to Heuston (1964), the principium of Sovereignty of the Parliament was developed “almost entirely by the work of Oxford men” such as: Hobbes; Blackstone; Dicey. This principium states that: “what the parliament doth, no power on earth can undo” (Dicey, 1902).

Although Wilson (1979) recognized that Rule of Law does not limit the Sovereignty of the Parliament, he attempted to justify some limitations to Executive’s powers. But, Wilson (1979) failed in his attempt. Exempli gratia, the arguments are; contradictory; nebulous; rhetorical games. For instance, Wilson (1979) argued that the “arbitrary power … (of) the Executive is in the hands of the Parliament … If it clearly grants the Executive wide arbitrary power then the Executive has wide arbitrary power. … the principle of rule of law …justifies the principles developed by the courts that powers should only be used for the purpose for which they have been granted”[6].

What does all this mean?

It means simply: Executive should comply with the principle of formal validity; and, Courts can verify if it happened. Nothing more! Nothing less!

This is as English Law lacks a corpus of legal values and moral principles able to bind the arbitrary use of Power.

English Legal System, indeed, is quite different from Italian Legal System. In the latter, the Parliament and the Government have not arbitrary Powers. Their Powers are limited by a corpus of moral values written in the Constitution. The Constitutional Court can annul, invalidate and cancel, all those legal norms that do not comply with those constitutional principles.

In U.S.A., on the contrary, each Judge can deny application to norms (Acts and Statutes) that are in contrast with Constitution[7].

Only in these latters Nations, Rule of Law can limit the arbitrary use of Power. Indeed, Power cannot go beyond some moral limitations written in the constitution. This is as: first, Rule of Law affirms the Supremacy of Law above the Power; second, a constitutional corpus of legal values and principles binds Power.

This is not possible inside English Legal System. Although Role of Law affirms the Supremacy of Law above Power, at the end, there is not any constitutional corpus of legal values and principles able to limit Power!!

Power can be limited only, and only if:

  1. a corpus of moral values is written inside the Constitution (in other words, in the Social Contract);
  2. Courts and Jurists (lawyers) are brave and able enough to defend those values against Power’s tendency to go beyond them;
  3. There is a real division of Powers. Powers should be able to balance and limit each other.

English Legal System lacks all of them, as it is shown infra (below).

Second Principle

According to Dicey (1902), Rule of Law affirms the equality of every man in front of the Law. “Every man, whatever be his rank or condition, is subject to the ordinary law of the realm and amenable to the jurisdiction of the ordinary tribunals”. In other words, Dicey affirmed: a) the existence of identical rules for everyone; b) the absence of special privileges. Actually, this principle is quite controversial. Alder (1989) affirmed to be a “ridiculous proposition” as Dicey’s statement has always been untrue in every time. The existence of different conditions and special privileges among people has always been part of the Very Nature of Every Government.

Moreover, if we consider the difference between formal equality and substantial equality, Dicey’s idea will be far … far …far more untrue.  The formal equality is a pleasant and agreeable declaration. But, it is void and useless as much as it is agreeable!  The substantial equality is just a Utopia. It has never ever existed in the World[8]. Exempli gratia, the article 3 of Italian Constitution affirms the formal and substantial equality among Italian Citizens. The Republic had the duty to remove any obstacle to this. Well, it is clearly evident that substantial equality does NOT exist even in Italy. So … … .

Nonetheless, Alder (1989) believes even the formal equality difficult to be realized at full circle.

Third Principle

According to Dicey (1902), the third principle is the absence of general principles. It means “… the constitution is pervaded by the rule of law on the ground that the general principles of the constitution (as for example the right to personal liberty, or the right of public meeting) are with us the result of judicial decisions determinating the rights of private persons in particular cases brought before the Courts; whereas under many foreign constitutions the security (such as it is) given to the rights of individuals results, or appears to result, from the general principles of constitution”.

According to Dicey (1902), a corpus of fundamental moral principles does not exist inside English Legal System. They are only “the consequence of the rights of individuals, as defined and enforced by the courts”.

In other words: on one side, he created a vicious circle; on the other side, he did not say anything of useful.

On one hand, indeed, everything is enforced by the Courts is Law. As a result, Courts have to enforce those individual rights defined and enforced by them(selves)!!!! (Vicious circle).

On the other hand, Courts have to enforce any act of the Parliament. In this latter case, the rights of individuals are only “what” the pro tempore Majority of the Parliament chooses they are!! Indeed, “no Parliament can bind its successors or be bound by its predecessors” (A. Beale, 1994).

The Westminster Parliament has no limit (Barendt,1998). “There is no legal limit to what the “Queen – in – Parliament” can enact in a statute” (Wilson, 1979).

All in all

Behind Dicey’s pleasant words, Rule of Law is nothing more than a principle of Formal Validity. English Legal History is clear. Dicey has attempted simply to use Rule of Law like a Horse of Troy to put inside the Legal System his political ideas.

The reason could be noble, but he chose the wrong way.  He made Rule of Law: a nebulous concept; a set of pleasant words that mask the reality. In this way, Role of Law started to be applied in different manners. It makes the Legal System to be applied differently from person to person!!



John Alder (1989) criticized the Dicey’s doctrine of the Rule of Law. He wrote: “His rule of law could not therefore be regarded as a statement about what British law is necessary like. It could be either a political statement as to what the law should be like, or a statement about what the law happened to be like at the time”.

According to Adler (1989), Rule of Law is a political idea. “The majority of modern lawyers would regard the rule of law as essentially a political or moral idea, although none the less important for that, since it affects the way the law is developed and applied”.

So…, we should give a look at the political ideas of two influential English lawyers: Raz and Allan!

[1] The other English Legal System’s characteristic was: the principle of Supremacy of the “Central Government”.

Until the Glorious Revolution, the Central Government was represented by the Crown.

From the Glorious Revolution to now, the Central Government was represented the Parliament (Loveland I., 1996). This latter is composed by three organs: the Crown; the House of Lords; the House of Commons.

[2] Exempli gratia, you may see Black – Clawson LTD v. Papierwerke waldhof aschaffenburg AC (1975) in: Keir D. L. and Lawson F. H. (1979), Cases in Constitutional Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Exempli gratia, Entick versus Carrington (1765).

Entick sued two king’s messengers (armed with warrant of the Secretary of State for arresting him) for: having trespassed into his house and goods; and, illegitimacy of the warrant. The Secretary of the State was not able to justify the warrant’s legitimacy within any specific law. He argued that those warrants had always been issued and none complained for them!!!!!

Camden C. J. declared: “This power, so claimed by the Secretary of the State, is not supported by one single citation from any law book extant… If it is law, it will be found in our books. If it is not to be found there, it is not law” (Entick versus Carrington, 1765).

The act of the Secretary of State was “unlawful” as: it did not comply with the principle of Formal Validity.

[4] Exempli gratia, in Malone versus Metropolitan Police Commissioner (1979), Robert Megarry V-C states: “… England, it may be said, is not a country where everything is forbidden except what is expressly permitted: it is a country where everything is permitted except what it is expressly forbidden”. In this case, the tapping of telephone was lawful as “simply … there is nothing to make it unlawful”. In other words, the discretion of power was affirmed above Role of Law. This happened as: no corpora of moral values exist inside English Constitution. Thus, an arbitrary use of Power is not prevented.

The decision was appealed to the European Court of Human Right. The Court affirmed that: UK violated the article 8 of the ECHR (Malone versus United Kingdom, 1984).

[5] Exempli gratia: Dicey (1902); Raz (1977); Allan (1993).

[6] Some of these principles quoted by Wilson (1979) are: “The power should be used for the purpose for which they were given”; “The power should be exercised by the person or body by whom they were intended to be exercised”; “The authority must be free to make a genuine exercise of any discretion which has been given to it”; “The authority in exercising its power should observe any procedures which have been expressly laid down in the statute or which the courts will imply into it”.

[7] The difference is: Italian Constitutional Court eliminates the unconstitutional norm from the Legal System; American Judges (USA) can ONLY deny application to norms (Acts and Statutes) that are unconstitutional for a singular case. But, they continue to exist inside the Legal System.

[8] Nietzsche copes with the difference between substantial and formal equality (Epis L., 2015, Nietzsche on Rule of Law and Democracy).