Democracy and the Rule of Law

Lesson Four: What is the Rule of Law?

Students will learn what the rule of law is, and how the rule of law helps to prevent dictatorships, abuses of power, and the tyranny of the majority.

1. Ask students to imagine a board game without rules. How would the game unfold? Next, ask students to imagine a society without rules. How would it unfold?

2. Review the definition of democracy (Lesson One) and the definition of liberalism (Lesson Two), then review how these terms come together in a liberal democracy (Lesson Three). Next, draw attention to the rule of law in Lesson Three’s definition of liberal democracy. Explain that laws spell out the rules of a society.

3. Distribute and read the handout Defining the Rule of Law.

• Why must the rules of a sport or a game be known in advance?
• Laws form the rules of a democracy. Who ultimately makes the laws in a democracy? The people or the government?

4. Ian Bassin, a former Whitehouse lawyer, said on the podcast The Good Fight:

We have seen in the 21st century this new form of autocrat. People think back to the 20th century autocrats and those were people with fascist, totalitarian governments [like] in early 20th century Germany. Those were non-democracies. Those were people who basically destroyed democracies to the point they just became dictatorships. In the 21st century it’s something that looks very different. It’s these autocrats in places like Poland and Hungary, Thailand, Venezuela, Russia, where the autocrat tries to maintain at least the appearance and semblance of democracy on the outside: multiple political parties, regular elections, there’s media outlets that are not owned by the state. But they pull at the threads of the fabric of the democracy in such a way that at the end of the day they render it a democracy in name only.

What Ian Bassin is getting at is that leaders in several countries today stretch the rules to their favour. Discuss this phenomenon with the class.

a) Is having a strict set of rules—as the rule of law requires—enough to protect democracy from abuse?
b) Do people tend to try to work their way around rules?
c) What happens if citizens say nothing when leaders disrespect the rules?

Case Study
5. Judges and the Rule of Law explores how Canada’s judges are expected to ensure that the law is followed and the rule of law remains intact.

Further Exploration

6. Teachers wishing to further explore how the police must follow the rule of law should check out Section Two: Youth, The Police, and Arrest in Teaching Youth Justice.

7. Making laws public for all to know is vital to the rule of law. For an understanding of how the publication of laws came to be a cornerstone of western legal systems, check out The PLEA: Hammurabi’s Code.

8. The case of Roncarelli v. Duplessis affirmed the rule of law in Canada. However, the affair involved many complex facts. For more perspective on the Roncarelli Affair, check out:
CBC Digital Archives: The Roncarelli Affair and Maurice Duplessis
Law Now: Whatever Happened to... Roncarelli v. Duplessis
McGill Law Journal: The Legacy of Roncarelli v. Duplessis 1959-2009

Defining the Rule of Law


Judges and the Rule of Law

Case Study

What is Revolution?