The doctrine of rule of law or supremacy of the law is very essential in every political system. It is the observance and supremacy of civil laws, which are reasonably justified in a democratic society. Where there is rule of law, the law is usually the supreme and above every person including the government. What this means is that, everyone is equal before the law. There is no class or economic differences between the people when they come before the law.
In practice, it is usually difficult to apply the principle of rule of law because of some limitations. These limitations stops the total application of the doctrine rule of law in most countries. Thus, many of the countries that claim to have adopted this doctrine does not really practice it. In fact many political scientists are of the view that a full application of the theory of rule of law is not possible because of it numerous limitations.
In this article, we will be looking broadly at the theory of rule of law with special reference to its basic features and limitations. Consequently, if you have been asking the question; “what are the limitations of rule of law?“, this article is for you.
So first, what is the meaning of rule of law?
What is rule of law?
To understand the meaning of rule of law, it is very important to know what law is. Laws are rules and regulations usually made by the government which order the way every person in the society behaves. It can also be defined as a system of rules which a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and which it may enforce by the imposition of penalties.
Rule of law, on the other hand, means that a country is governed by civil law or regular law, that is, laws which are reasonably justifiable in a democratic society, as opposed to draconian, oppressive and arbitrary laws. Put in a different way, rule of law as a doctrine means the observance and Supremacy of civil or civilized law.
- See the Major characteristics of human rights
- Fundamental human rights under the 1999 constitution of Nigeria
Features of rule of law
Below are some of the features or characteristics of the principle rule of law:
1. Equality before the law:
One of the major features of the doctrine of rule of law is equality before the law. It is the most essential part of this doctrine because explains the fact that there is no other Supreme power in a country where there is rule of law but the law.
In other words, where there is equlity before the law, everyone including the government is under the law. Consequently, anyone can bring an action against another person when there is a breach of the law. This is so because the law is supreme and above every other authority in the political system.
2. Respect for the decision of the court:
In a country where there is rule of law, the judiciary is usually the strongest arm of the government because it has the power to decide whether a law is valid or not. That does not actually mean that the judiciary is above the law anyway.
In a country where there is rule of law, the decision of the court is usually respected. This is so because the court has the power of interpreting the law. This means done by giving decision to matters that comes before it.
3. Acting according to law:
No doubt, people tend to act according to the law where there is the rule of law because, the law shapes their life and behavior when associating with others.
Take for instance, when the Supreme law of a country provides that fraud is punishable by death, people will tend to avoid fraud when performing any transaction with anyone. This is how the doctrine of rule of law helps the ensure that people act according to the law.
4. Respect for Human rights:
Human rights are inalienable and immutable rights which are given to a person because he/she is a human being. Usually, Human rights are declare sacrosanct by the law to ensure that they are not infringed upon.
Consequently, the rule of law ensure that the fundamental human rights of citizens (which are usually part of the law) are respected and cannot be breached by even the government.
5. Operation of a constitutional and democratic system of government:
The doctrine of rule of law also facilitates the practice of a constitutional and democratic government. The reason is because these systems of government have similar features with the doctrine of rule of law. Basically, they are aimed at protecting citizens from arbitrary exercise of powers by government.
Now that you know the features or characteristics of rule of law, it is important to also know the limitations of the application of rule of law in a country. What we are about to look into are the reasons why the doctrine of rule of law is to practicable in many countries.
Limitations of rule of law
Below are the limitations of the application of rule of law:
Corruption is one of the major limitations of the doctrine of rule of law. This is usually the case in Africa because most officials of the government are corrupt and selfish. The truth is that, the doctrine of rule of law can not be applicable where majority of the people who make up the government does not have the interest of the people at heart. They will always find a way to sidestep the doctrine and do whatever they feel, even if the law provides against it.
This is undoubtedly one of the limitations of the application of rule of law in every country. Aside from the corrupt practices of government officials, corruption in other sectors of the country may also contribute to the limitations of rule of law. Take for instance, a defendant can bribe the judge in his case to give judgment in his favor. Thus, the doctrine of rule of law will not be applicable.
The fact that most people don’t actually know that the law is supreme actually contributes to the limitation of rule of law. Yes! Most people don’t actually know that they can question and sue the government for breach of the law and that has substantially caused a breakdown of the doctrine of rule of law.
One of the pillars of this doctrine is the judiciary, and the responsibility of the judiciary is to interpret the law as it is. Now, the judiciary cannot bring cases of breach of the doctrine of rule of law to itself. It is the people that are supposed to bring cases to the judiciary to interpret what the law is.
From the above, it is apparent that illiteracy can hinder the doctrine of rule of law because the lack of knowledge of the doctrine will make people to be silent when the government acts above the law.
3. Bad leadership:
It is truism that bad leaders don’t actually want to doctrine of rule of law because it reduces their power and ability to manipulate the government for their personal interest. For this reason, they oppose the doctrine in anyway they can. Even if the doctrine is provided for in the law, it will still not be practicable because the leaders of the country are only pursuing their personal interests and goals, leaving the people oppressed.
An example of a country in this situation is Nigeria. The doctrine of rule of law is already supported by the constitution of the country but it is not feasible because, the leader are manipulating every sector of the country to become stronger and stronger.
Also read: Exceptions to the rule in pinnel’s case
4. Immunity of some government officials:
Since the law sometimes provides for the immunity of some government officials, it makes it able for those officials to take powers into their own hands while in power. Take for instance, the Immunity Clause in Section 306 of the 1999 constitution of Nigeria protects some members of the government from being sued during the tenure of their office. This may be justified with the fact that it helps the government to concentrate on their responsibilities, but it actually discourages the doctrine of rule of law.
Immunity of the government enables officials of the government to have absolute power to do any thing they like while in office. For instance, in Nigeria, many government officials who are protected under the said clause, use most of their time in office to acquire wealth and infringe on the rights of the citizens silently.
5. Lack of patriotism:
Lack of patriotism is also a limitation of rule of law because, where there is no patriotism, every citizen of the country will want to circumvent the law for a cynical purpose. This is the case in Nigeria, where almost every citizen want to have a share from the benefit of the corrupt practices of the government.
The point is that; where there is lack of the value for the application of the doctrine of rule of law, it will be probably impossible to make it feasible. Thus, for the doctrine of rule of law to be applicable in any political system, there must be a value system that is actually receptive to the doctrine.
These are the major limitations of the doctrine of rule of law. Where any of the above points is present, it is usually impossible to see the doctrine of rule of law in practice even if it is expressly provided for. Nonetheless, it should be noted that without law and obedience to law, civilisation would diminish or totally collapse in a given country or geographical entity because civilisation is the acceptance and enforcement of rule of law, or rights and duties.
Hope this article was helpful? Well, if you have any contribution to the limitation of rule of law, kindly share it using the comment section below. Thank you for reading!
Edeh Samuel Chukwuemeka, ACMC, is a lawyer and a certified mediator/conciliator in Nigeria. He is also a developer with knowledge in various programming languages. Samuel is determined to leverage his skills in technology, SEO, and legal practice to revolutionize the legal profession worldwide by creating web and mobile applications that simplify legal research. Sam is also passionate about educating and providing valuable information to people.