I chose as my subject ‘The Rule of Law’. I did so because the expression was constantly on people’s lips, I was not quite sure what it meant, and I was not sure that all those who used the expression knew what they meant either…
If there was one book that could be described as the bible of English law, this is it. Contained within this book are the eight commandments on which all democratic legal systems ought to be based. Lawyers ought to live by it, politicians ought to promote it, and anyone interested in preserving a functioning civil society ought to endure it. In fact, so readable and accessible is this text that it ought to be mandatory for every British citizen to read, absorb its contents and adhere to its guidelines. This text, in my view, is the answer to obtaining complete national and international civility.
Written by legal mastermind Lord Bingham, who served in the highest judicial offices of the United Kingdom as Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord, this short book is written with all the austere wisdom one would expect from such an avid individual. Yet Lord Bingham delivers with a concise, clear, reachable and often humorous tone which makes this book an enjoyable and entertaining read. The style of writing gives the impression of sitting in an engaging lecture, with the added advantage that you can pause and play as you wish!
The book, originally inspired by the sixth Sir David Williams lecture of the same name given by Lord Bingham at Cambridge University, is neatly communicated in three parts. The first part is divided into two chapters, the first of which is a general introduction to what the rule of law means and an explanation of why it is important. Lord Bingham introduces those that were the very first to refer to the notion of the rule of law, mentioning Aristotle, John Locke and pointing out some of the highlights and criticisms of Dicey’s Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution which had previously been the most cited text on the subject of the rule of law.
In chapter two Lord Bingham delves into the history of the subject, taking the reader back to 1215 and the signing of the Magna Carta, followed by a leisurely stroll through 12 landmark points in legal history that, in Bingham’s view, have informed the rule of law. This chapter is thoroughly fascinating and provides the reader with the context to enable a full understanding of the derivation of this axiomatic principle, before considering its elements in detail.
Part two of the book really is the heart of it: it is the moment on Mount Sinai at which the commandments are received, the laying of the eight commandments of Justice. Lord Bingham dedicates a chapter to each of the fundamental elements that he believes form ‘the rule of law’, namely:
The third and final part of the book is also divided into two chapters. Chapter 11 considers the impact of terrorism on the rule of law. Lord Bingham, uses the example of his own famous ruling outlawing discrimination against foreign terrorist suspects in the Belmarsh case to highlight the importance of the rule of law in practice. This chapter highlights and discusses the strains imposed on the rule of law by the threat and experience of international terrorism. Lord Bingham compares and contrasts both the American and British responses to a national emergency in dealing with terrorism, 9/11 and the Iraq war and considers how the rule of law was applied (or, as is demonstrated, overridden!) and the resulting consequences . This chapter takes an otherwise deeply complicated situation and summarises the implications in digestible prose, making this chapter, like the rest of the text, easily accessible for the layperson.
Chapter 12 of the book considers the second pillar of the UK Constitution, Parliamentary sovereignty, and addresses its sometimes-argued incompatibility with the rule of law. As a law student I found this chapter exceedingly interesting and I was eager for some of the key issues in this chapter to be addressed in more depth. I felt that perhaps as a final chapter it seemed a little out of place, or was at least a peculiar way to conclude a short introductory book – introducing another constitutional principle. I felt that this chapter would have been better suited as the introduction to another book dedicated to considering this problem. Nevertheless, perhaps it was Lord Bingham’s aim to make us subtly aware of a possible criticism of the rule of law, just to prompt a defence of it!
The Rule of Law is an ideal law book for those who wouldn’t think of reading a book about law. Lord Bingham gives a very modern and sometimes amusing view, and I was particularly fond of the proposition that for the law to be intelligible what Lord Bingham calls ‘the legislative hyperactivity which appears to have become a permanent feature of our governance’ must be tamed. Lord Justice Sedley, in a review in the Guardian, commented that Lord Bingham’s short book is:
…a remarkable essay on the subject, stooping from panoptic heights of generality to brief but meticulously detailed case studies drawn principally from cases in which he himself has been involved.
This is one example of a law book that will not date, for the key values expressed in this book transcend time. As Lord Bingham concludes:
In a world divided by differences of nationality, race, colour, religion, and wealth, it [the rule of law] is one of the greatest unifying factors, perhaps the greatest, the nearest we are likely to approach to a universal secular religion.
The Rule of Law by Tom Bingham is one of the most revered legal books this year, and winner of the Orwell Prize for Best Political Book 2011. I urge all law and non-law students alike to read and absorb this inspiring and compelling masterpiece.