The Rule of Law


The Rule of Law


Bingham, T. H. (2011). The Rule of Law. Penguin Books Ltd.

Author and Publication Information

Author: Tom Bingham was a prominent British judge who served as Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and Senior Law Lord of the United Kingdom. He became a life peer as Baron Bingham of Cornhill and was appointed a Knight of the Garter. Bingham passed away in 2010, shortly after the first publication of this book.

Publication Information: Published by Penguin Books Ltd in 2011, this book was first released by Allen Lane in 2010.

Intellectual & Historical Context

Historical Context: “The Rule of Law” was written in the context of increasing global interest in human rights and legal accountability, influenced by post-9/11 security measures and debates about the balance between liberty and security. Bingham draws on historical legal traditions from Magna Carta to modern legislative frameworks, reflecting on both English and international legal principles.

Intellectual Context: Bingham’s work is situated within the broader discourse of legal theory and constitutional law, engaging with the ideas of legal scholars such as A. V. Dicey, who emphasized the importance of the rule of law in the British constitutional tradition. Bingham’s analysis reflects a synthesis of historical legal doctrines with contemporary legal challenges.

Thesis Statement

Bingham’s central thesis in The Rule of Law is that the rule of law is fundamental to the functioning of a democratic society, ensuring that all individuals and authorities within the state are accountable under the law. He argues that this principle is essential for safeguarding individual freedoms, maintaining public order, and promoting justice.

Key Concepts

  1. Accessibility of the Law: The law must be accessible and intelligible to the people it governs, ensuring that individuals understand their rights and obligations.
  2. Law not Discretion: Legal decisions should be based on established laws rather than the arbitrary discretion of officials, promoting fairness and predictability in the application of the law.
  3. Equality Before the Law: All individuals, regardless of status, are subject to the same laws and are entitled to equal protection and treatment under the law.
  4. Exercise of Power: The exercise of state power must be controlled by law, preventing abuses and ensuring accountability.
  5. Human Rights: The rule of law encompasses the protection of fundamental human rights, integrating international human rights norms into domestic legal systems.
  6. Dispute Resolution: Effective legal mechanisms must be in place to resolve disputes impartially and fairly.
  7. A Fair Trial: The right to a fair trial is a cornerstone of the rule of law, guaranteeing that justice is administered without prejudice or bias.
  8. International Legal Order: The rule of law extends beyond national boundaries, emphasizing the importance of international legal standards and cooperation.

Bingham’s exploration of these concepts underscores their interdependence and collective importance in upholding the rule of law in both national and international contexts.

Chapter Summaries


Bingham begins by explaining the origins of the book, which stemmed from a lecture he gave in 2006. He discusses the importance and ubiquity of the phrase “the rule of law” and his motivation for exploring its meaning in greater depth. Bingham aims to clarify the concept for a general audience, demystifying its principles and importance in democratic societies.

Part I: General Principles

Chapter 1: The Importance of the Rule of Law

Bingham opens with an exploration of what the rule of law means and why it is crucial for a liberal democracy. He outlines how the rule of law ensures that no one is above the law and that everyone is subject to the law’s constraints and protections. He also discusses the fundamental principles that underpin the rule of law, such as legal certainty, equality before the law, and accountability.

Chapter 2: Some History

This chapter provides a historical overview of the development of the rule of law. Bingham traces its origins from ancient times, including references to Aristotle and early English legal history, such as Magna Carta and the Petition of Right. He discusses significant milestones and legal reforms that have shaped the modern understanding of the rule of law.

Part II: The Core Principles

Chapter 3: The Accessibility of the Law

Bingham argues that for the rule of law to be effective, the law must be accessible and understandable to the public. He emphasizes the need for laws to be clear, publicized, and stable to guide people’s behavior and ensure justice.

Chapter 4: Law not Discretion

This chapter explores the importance of legal decisions being based on established laws rather than the arbitrary discretion of officials. Bingham highlights the dangers of unchecked discretion and the necessity for legal certainty and predictability.

Chapter 5: Equality Before the Law

Bingham examines the principle of equality before the law, stressing that all individuals, regardless of status, should be subject to the same legal standards and protections. He discusses historical and contemporary issues related to legal equality and non-discrimination.

Chapter 6: The Exercise of Power

This chapter focuses on the control of state power through law. Bingham discusses the mechanisms that ensure governmental actions are lawful and accountable, including judicial review and the separation of powers.

Chapter 7: Human Rights

Bingham addresses the relationship between the rule of law and human rights, arguing that the protection of fundamental rights is a core component of the rule of law. He explores how human rights are safeguarded through legal frameworks and international treaties.

Chapter 8: Dispute Resolution

This chapter delves into the importance of having effective legal mechanisms for resolving disputes. Bingham discusses the role of courts and alternative dispute resolution methods in ensuring fair and impartial adjudication.

Chapter 9: A Fair Trial

Bingham outlines the elements that constitute a fair trial, including the right to an impartial judge, the presumption of innocence, and the right to legal representation. He examines how these principles are applied in practice to uphold justice.

Chapter 10: The Rule of Law in the International Legal Order

Bingham expands the discussion to the international sphere, examining how the rule of law operates beyond national boundaries. He discusses the role of international law and institutions in promoting global justice and legal accountability.

Part III: Contemporary Issues

Chapter 11: Terrorism and the Rule of Law

Bingham explores the challenges posed by terrorism to the rule of law. He examines the balance between security measures and the protection of civil liberties, critiquing policies that undermine legal principles in the name of counterterrorism.

Chapter 12: The Rule of Law and the Sovereignty of Parliament

This chapter addresses the complex relationship between the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty, particularly in the UK context. Bingham discusses how these two principles can sometimes be in tension and how they can be reconciled.


In the epilogue, Bingham reflects on the enduring importance of the rule of law. He reiterates its foundational role in maintaining a just and democratic society and calls for continued vigilance in upholding legal principles against various threats and challenges.


The book concludes with extensive notes, providing references and further reading for the topics discussed throughout the chapters. These notes offer additional context and support for Bingham’s arguments and analyses.

Key Quotes and Significance & Impact

Key Quotes

Chapter 1: The Importance of the Rule of Law
  1. “No man is punishable or can lawfully be 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 the land.”
  • Significance: This quote encapsulates the principle that punishment must be based on established laws, highlighting the necessity for legal certainty and procedural justice.
Chapter 2: Some History
  1. “Magna Carta was not a peace accord botched up to meet a sudden crisis and, as history repeatedly shows, liable to unravel. It had a quality of inherent strength because it expressed the will of the people, or at any rate the articulate representatives of the people.”
  • Significance: Bingham underscores the enduring importance of Magna Carta, not just as a historical document but as a foundational symbol of legal accountability and popular will.
Chapter 3: The Accessibility of the Law
  1. “The law must be accessible and so far as possible intelligible, clear and predictable.”
  • Significance: This quote emphasizes that for the rule of law to function effectively, laws must be understandable and predictable, enabling individuals to regulate their conduct accordingly.
Chapter 4: Law not Discretion
  1. “The broader and more loosely expressed a discretion conferred on the decision-maker, the greater the scope for corruption, patronage and injustice.”
  • Significance: Bingham highlights the dangers of unchecked discretion, advocating for precise laws that limit arbitrary power and enhance legal fairness.
Chapter 5: Equality Before the Law
  1. “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.”
  • Significance: This reinforces the principle of legal equality, ensuring that all individuals, regardless of their status, are subject to the same laws and judicial processes.
Chapter 6: The Exercise of Power
  1. “The core of the existing principle is that all persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly made.”
  • Significance: This quote encapsulates the fundamental idea that the rule of law binds everyone within the state, ensuring legal accountability and protection for all.
Chapter 7: Human Rights
  1. “The protection of fundamental human rights is a key part of the rule of law.”
  • Significance: Bingham stresses that the rule of law is not just about procedural fairness but also about protecting substantive rights that are fundamental to human dignity.
Chapter 8: Dispute Resolution
  1. “Effective resolution of civil disputes is essential to the rule of law.”
  • Significance: This quote highlights the importance of having robust mechanisms for resolving disputes, which is crucial for maintaining public trust in the legal system.
Chapter 9: A Fair Trial
  1. “A fair trial is one of the fundamental guarantees of individual liberty and security.”
  • Significance: Bingham emphasizes that the right to a fair trial is central to justice, protecting individuals from arbitrary or unjust legal proceedings.
Chapter 10: The Rule of Law in the International Legal Order
  1. “The rule of law is not confined to national borders but is also a principle of international governance.”
    • Significance: This highlights the importance of the rule of law at the international level, advocating for global legal standards and cooperation.
Chapter 11: Terrorism and the Rule of Law
  1. “The rules of the game are not changing; they are not, in the end, our rules. They are international legal standards which we have been at pains to establish.”
    • Significance: Bingham argues against compromising legal standards in the face of terrorism, emphasizing the need to uphold international legal norms.
Chapter 12: The Rule of Law and the Sovereignty of Parliament
  1. “Parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law are usually said to be the two fundamental principles underlying our constitution… they may not be entirely harmonious bedfellows.”
    • Significance: This quote addresses the tension between parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law, a central theme in understanding the UK’s constitutional framework.

Significance & Impact


  • Bingham’s The Rule of Law is a profound exploration of the principles that underpin democratic governance and legal systems. By breaking down the rule of law into its constituent elements, Bingham provides a clear and accessible analysis of why these principles are essential for justice and societal stability. His work serves as both a historical account and a contemporary critique, making it relevant for legal scholars, practitioners, and policymakers.


  • Legal Education and Scholarship: Bingham’s book has become a seminal text in legal education, widely used in law schools to teach students about the foundational principles of the rule of law.
  • Judicial Practice: The principles articulated by Bingham continue to influence judicial decisions and the development of legal standards, particularly in areas related to human rights and administrative law.
  • Public Policy: The book has informed public debate and policy-making, especially in discussions around counterterrorism, human rights, and constitutional reforms. Bingham’s emphasis on maintaining legal standards in the face of security threats has been particularly impactful in shaping legislative responses to terrorism.
  • International Law: Bingham’s advocacy for the rule of law at the international level contributes to ongoing efforts to strengthen global legal frameworks and institutions. His work supports the integration of international human rights norms into domestic legal systems.

In summary, The Rule of Law by Tom Bingham is a critical text that elucidates the essential principles of legal governance, advocating for their rigorous application in both national and international contexts. Its influence extends across legal theory, judicial practice, public policy, and international law, making it a cornerstone of contemporary legal thought.

Additional Critical Reflections

Interdisciplinary Relevance:

  • The Rule of Law extends its influence beyond the legal domain, intersecting with political science, philosophy, and human rights studies. Bingham’s insights into the balance between state power and individual rights are pertinent to political theorists examining the nature of liberal democracies.
  • Philosophers interested in justice and ethics find in Bingham’s work a practical application of abstract principles, while human rights advocates use it to ground their arguments in a well-articulated legal framework.

Contemporary Challenges:

  • Bingham’s work is particularly relevant in the context of contemporary issues such as the rise of populism, erosion of democratic norms, and increasing authoritarianism. His emphasis on the rule of law as a safeguard against arbitrary power resonates strongly in today’s political climate, where legal principles are often under threat.
  • The book addresses the complexities of applying the rule of law in an age of global terrorism, highlighting the risks of undermining legal standards in the name of security. This discussion is crucial for current debates on national security, civil liberties, and the appropriate balance between them.

Judicial Independence and Accountability:

  • Bingham’s reflections on judicial independence emphasize the need for a judiciary free from political influence, an issue that remains critical as judicial systems worldwide face pressure from political entities.
  • The book also touches upon the accountability of judges, a delicate balance that ensures judges can operate independently while remaining answerable to the public and adhering to ethical standards.

Legal Reforms and Future Directions:

  • Bingham’s work suggests directions for legal reforms aimed at strengthening the rule of law. His discussions on access to justice and the need for clear, accessible laws point towards necessary changes in legal education, public legal information, and the functioning of legal institutions.
  • Future legal scholarship and policy-making can draw from Bingham’s principles to address gaps in the legal system, particularly in areas of procedural justice and equality before the law.

Broader Implications

Democratic Resilience:

  • Bingham’s analysis underlines the rule of law as a cornerstone of resilient democracies. By ensuring that laws govern rather than individual whims, the rule of law helps maintain stability and trust in public institutions. This is particularly relevant in times of political turmoil, where adherence to legal norms can prevent the descent into authoritarianism.

Global Justice and International Cooperation:

  • On an international level, Bingham’s advocacy for the rule of law supports efforts to create a more just global order. His ideas contribute to the development of international legal standards that protect human rights and promote fair dispute resolution among states.
  • International bodies such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court benefit from the principles Bingham outlines, which bolster their legitimacy and effectiveness in enforcing international law.

Human Rights Protection:

  • The book’s focus on human rights within the framework of the rule of law underscores the necessity of legal protections for fundamental freedoms. Bingham’s arguments provide a robust defense against encroachments on civil liberties, making his work a vital resource for human rights organizations and activists.
  • His critique of anti-terrorism measures that compromise legal standards offers a powerful counter-narrative to policies that prioritize security over rights, advocating instead for a balanced approach that does not sacrifice justice.

Educational Impact:

  • Bingham’s clear and compelling writing makes complex legal concepts accessible to a wider audience, including students and non-specialists interested in law and governance. This contributes to a more informed public discourse on the rule of law and its significance.
  • His work encourages critical thinking about legal systems and their role in society, inspiring future generations of legal professionals to uphold the principles he espouses.


Tom Bingham’s The Rule of Law is a comprehensive and thought-provoking exploration of a fundamental concept in democratic governance. By dissecting the principles that constitute the rule of law, Bingham not only clarifies its importance but also provides a framework for understanding its application in various contexts. His work remains highly relevant, offering insights that guide legal scholarship, judicial practice, policy-making, and public debate. The book’s lasting impact lies in its ability to articulate the enduring values of justice, fairness, and legal accountability, making it a vital contribution to the field of law and beyond.

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