Opinion by Phil Glover - Lord Bingham and The Rule of Law

Phil Glover, a third year LLB (Honours) student, reviews Lord Bingham’s ‘the Rule of Law’, and in so doing encourages other students to consider the role of lawyers generally, and their own role particularly, within our society.

I know I will regret digressing from my revision at this late stage, with Revenue Law this Thursday and an honours exam in Administrative Law the next day. It is partly due to that Honours exam that I have felt moved to answer Ryan’s 6 month old request for a book review, and it is the book I am using for that Administrative Law exam that I must commend to all law students: ‘The Rule of Law’ by Tom Bingham (Penguin Books (Paperback) released in 2011, priced £9.99).

If I said it was an excellent book to accompany Public Law studies, many would roll their eyes and pass over it. If I added that it was written by an eminent Law Lord, now sadly deceased, it might garner more sympathy but still not engage legal students en masse.

So I will start from a different tack. I will wager that virtually all students of the law enter with a wish to assist in the delivery of justice, to make a difference, to win arguments, to have that parental pride in their top percentile intelligence recognised within one or more of the comfortable niche specialisms that law practice can offer. Even better if that recognition makes us a household name. Better still if it makes us extremely wealthy. So what happens to our noble wish? Let us examine that…with a healthy dose of honesty. We are all just a little vain. A tad arrogant. Success fuels this vanity and arrogance. We stop understanding or even trying to understand those who do not act or think as rationally or logically as us. Over the years we become aloof, detached, conservative and disdainful. We stop seeking just outcomes and endeavour rather to obtain “handy” outcomes. We plea bargain. We negotiate even when we know we should be conceding nothing. We feed the cynicism of those who despise us. We forget who we were. We forget why we entered the law in Scotland or the UK. We accept the actions of Government “for the public good” without meaningful question. Unlawful detention, kettling, control orders, deportation…all happen somewhere else, not in our cosseted environment. We Twitter, Facebook and Ipod our way through our individual days whilst the media compete for our attention with offers of “celebrity” affairs, superinjunctions, and distant disasters. Nothing is real. We have the collective attention span of amoebae. Our ruling class dress as Labour or Conservative but nothing really changes. We will reach retirement, having “done our bit,” made a few pounds, raised our kids and none of our aspirations, those fantastic ideals we entered university with, will have been realised. We changed nothing.

This tragic outcome is avoidable students! READ THIS BOOK STUDENTS! KEEP THIS BOOK AT THE FOREFRONT OF YOUR WORKING LIVES STUDENTS! The need for the rule of law has never been more real! Carefully, slowly, digest Lord Bingham’s direct, honest content and rely on the wisdom and analysis within it to guide and direct your lives in a law career. The real meaning of the rule of law should be instilled in us all from Year 1, and never jettisoned from our minds. This is not a legal book. It is one of a rare breed of books. When you are directed to Stair, Bankton, Dicey et al, Bingham is a name that should now be guaranteed to join them and live eternal in legal scholarship for the simple reason that he is able to tell us all, from his life experience, how this country is really governed; the constant tension between the thought processes that legislate (in often desperate ill-judged efforts to respond to the public mood as dictated by a rabid press) versus, thank God, the much maligned but very necessary judicial thought processes that seek to regulate. This book articulates, with no flowery verbiage or needless added drama, the interaction and tension between a “supreme” UK Parliament, the European Institutions and the judiciary. It provides a background in layman’s terms to what is public law in the modern UK, incorporating human rights legislation and international treaties, whilst demonstrating time and again that a supreme Parliament MUST have a gutsy judiciary to counter its worst excesses.

Chapter 1 sets out his stall. Entitled “the Importance of the Rule of Law” it instils, with the wisdom that only a lifetime of public service in the legal profession and senior judiciary can, the fundamental importance of a very simple principle. After a succinct, but on point U.K. history lesson in Chapter 2, the vitally important component parts of what the rule of law actually means are fleshed out, in terms which rather than tiring the reader, fully engage that aforementioned top percentile analytical brain.

Concepts such as “Law not Discretion” (chapter 4), “The Exercise of Power” (Chapter 6) and “A Fair Trial” (Chapter 9) constantly ooze the author’s unerring moral compass, which points towards justice as its constant true north. Chapters 11 and 12, “Terrorism and the Rule of Law” and “The Rule of Law and the Sovereignty of Parliament” mark the books conclusion and also the point where I felt moved to write this review. The author has lived through, and passed judgment on, many memorable and very public, emotive cases, with hugely disparate outcomes and reactions. Terrorism breeds extreme reactions. His analysis of the U.S/U.K response to terrorism is a must-read. By way of example, during thirty years of home-grown, lethal, intense IRA terrorist activity directed against British citizens, the rule of law survived with a maximum terrorist suspect detention period of seven days. (Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) (NI) Act 1989). Apart from a very short lived early debacle in 1971, no terrorist suspects were ever detained indefinitely without trial. After 9/11, and before 7/7, the Government found it “necessary” to raise the maximum detention (without trial) to 28 days. Control orders are now a reality. How can this be? If the subjects of control orders were dissident Irish republicans there would be a huge outcry. Bingham pricks your conscience, and so he should. If his book tells you nothing else, citizens and their legal representatives need to monitor the activities of Government on an unwavering basis. They must be ready to challenge vociferously when the tabloid reading supreme legislature over reacts and begins to erode civil liberties. Judicial review makes that challenge possible. Public lawyers engage in judicial review. Read this book and you will want to be a public lawyer and do what you first dreamed of doing…bringing justice to those who need you.

If there was ever a book to inspire those who gravitate into Casus Omissus, The Aberdeen Law Project, the £10.00 you are required to spend to read this one is the most beneficial you will ever give Blackwell’s . You will deserve good money and a nice life, but your top percentile intelligence should always remain tuned to your own moral compass as a result of this encounter with the late Lord Bingham.