Author – Sanya Kapoor

Administrative Law has been evolved from a convergence of forces, some exerting pressure on the legal system from without while others exerting pressure from within. From without emerged the most intense economic and social pressures, whereas from within emerged resistance to the impractical details and the inflexibility of the structure which has been adopted by the previous generations and foundations which was welded securely on the present foundations. In the words of Professor Wade, Administrative law is the law which is concerned with keeping the powers of the government within their legal boundaries in order to prevent any miscarriage of justice. The primary aim behind administrative law is to ensure that the discretionary powers which have been vested with the administrative authorities are not modified into arbitrary powers.

The origin of administrative law can be traced back to the ancient times where the monarchs and the administrators were governed and ruled by the concept of dharma. Though the principles of natural justice had been observed by the monarchs and the administrators, but still there was an absence of administrative law during those times. It was only after the establishment of the British rule in India, that the powers of the government had witnessed a tremendous increase. The British Government had passed various statutes, acts and legislation in the interest of public safety and health. The State Carriage Act, 1861 had embarked the development of administrative law in India through the practice of granting administrative license , whereas the Northern India Canal and Drainage Act, 1873 had embarked the beginning of delegated legislation in India. However, during this period the British government had centered itself with revenue collection and maintenance of law and order and did not implement functions that a state committed to the philosophy of laissez-faire would have executed. The traditional legislative and the judicial functions could not effectively resolve the problems faced by the citizens, which resulted in the growth and development of administrative law in India. After the year 1919, the state regulations had evolved to include transportation, labor, and trade & commerce. The Workmen’s Compensation had been enacted in 1923, as no law had existed for regulating labor-management relations until that time. Though the rationale behind this enactment was to burden the Indian manufacturers, but it paved way for the enactment of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1929 with the objective of providing mechanism for third-party settlement of industrial disputes. During the colonial period, regulations such as the Indian Tea Control Act of 1933 and the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934 had been enacted to enforce state sovereignty and to restrict the utilization of natural resources. Following the onset of the Second World War, the executive had been entrusted with broad powers to intervene with the life, liberty and property of the individuals. The Defense of India Act which had been enacted in 1939 authorized the central government to enact rules that it deemed necessary to maintain public safety and order. The emergency legislation which had been enacted during the Second World War stayed in force even after the war had ended which led to the most noteworthy and significant increase in the functions and powers of the state in the 20th century. The Constitution of India, which had come into force in 1950 had envisaged the objective of a welfare state as well as a social reform towards a just social order as a result of which the State had no longer been confined to its traditional functions. It aimed to provide social security for the common man, govern the industrial relations in order to maintain industrial peace with a view to protect and promote public interest. Even though the state was not wholly laissez-faire, but it undertook the responsibility to fulfill the functions of a welfare state.

Post-independence, India had implemented a welfare state approach which resulted in an upsurge in the activities of the state. The demand for the ‘Rule of Law’ had increased with an increase in the activities of the administrative authorities and the government. The concept of ‘Rule of law, is the cornerstone upon which the modern democratic societies have been built. In the words of A.V Dicey, ‘no one should be punished or be made to suffer lawfully in body or property unless that person has breached the law that has been established in the ordinary lawful manner before the ordinary courts of the land.’ The term ‘Rule of law’ had been acquired from a French phrase, ‘La Principe de Legality’ which is a government that is regulated on the law of the land and not of the men. The concept denotes an absolute supremacy of the regular law over the impact of the arbitrary power, excluding the existence of arbitrariness, or a broad discretionary authority on the government’s side.  It relates to equality before the law or the subjection of all classes to ordinary law courts on an equal footing. A.V Dicey has established the foundation for the theory of Rule of Law, which has been centered on three pillars-:

  1. Supremacy of the law-: It envisages the concept that the administration has no authority outside the law. It does not possess any inherent powers to affect the rights of an individual through its own fiat or decree. The supremacy of the law is regarded as one of the cardinal principles in the common law country as it contributes to the application of the doctrine of ultra vires and the judicial review of the administrative action.
  2. Equality before the law-:  While the supremacy of law enforces checks and balances on the power of the administrative authorities, the equality before law ensures that the law has been administered in accordance with the principles of natural justice.
  3. The Predominance of the legal spirit-:  Dicey was an ardent supporter of the judicial review and believed that the supremacy of the courts has been linked to the rule of law. According to him, transferring judicial power to another agency would result in the violation of the rule of law. This principle ensures that the administrative actions are subjected to judicial review, as the courts ensures that the administrative authorities do not go beyond the powers which have been given to them.

In the common law system, the growth and development of administrative law had an enduring impact on the Rule of Law. The Constitution of India which is governed by the rule of law is the supreme power of the land and the executive and legislative branches derive their authority from it. Any law which does not confirm to the provisions which have been laid down in the Constitution shall be declared as invalid. The rule of law has been adopted by the Indian Courts to discipline the powers which are being exercised by the administrative authorities. The Hon’ble Court in A.K Kraipak v. Union of India[1] laid down that in a welfare state like India, the rule of law must inevitably regulate and control the organ of the State under the Constitution. They further stated that if the instrumentalities of the State are not burdened with the task of carrying out their functions in a fair and in an impartial manner, the concept of rule of law will be rendered invalid. In the case of A.D.M Jabalpur v. S.Shukla[2], the court laid down that the contrast between a lawless society and the one regulated by rules would lose its meaning if such sanctity of life and liberty does not exist, and all the civilized societies have embraced the concept of rule of law as it aims to strike a balance between the State and the citizens.

However, from 1970-1990, India had experienced a period of political upheavals. The democratic process had been overshadowed by the 1975-1977 emergency. As a result of which the concept of ‘Rule of Law’ was in great danger. In 1991, a massive change in development policy occurred when the government decided to open up certain areas under the public ownership to the private enterprises. As a result of the policy of liberalization, the state centric administrative law progressively became people centric. Though, the problems which persisted during the period of political upheavals had put the ‘Rule of Law’ in danger, but the constitutional mechanism had established adequate safeguards to ensure that the Rule of Law will always exist in some form. Any rule, regulation or ordinance can be deemed as ultra vires if it violates any provision of the Constitution as stated under Article 13. The government and its officials are also susceptible to legal scrutiny for any act that violates the law through Article 14 which ensures that all the people are treated equally and are not discriminated on the basis of religion, sex, or place of birth. The involvement of the courts in the interpretation of the law is one of the most significant factors which have contributed to the sustenance of the Rule of Law during the growth and development of administrative law. In Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[3], the court held that government’s arbitrary exercise of authority would not infringe the rights which have been guaranteed to the people under the Constitution. The Hon’ble Court in the case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala[4] ruled out that laws could not be enacted that fundamentally go against the ‘Rule of Law’ as the basic structure of Constitution cannot be breached.

The recent enhancement of the rule of law in every aspect of administrative functioning has given it a distinctive place in the Indian administrative law. Thus, the growth and development of administrative law in India has ensured that the Rule of Law has been followed in all issues such as the preservation of the rights of the people, equal treatment before law and in protection against excessive arbitrariness through provisions which have been laid down under the Constitution.


[1] A.K Kraipak v. Union of India, AIR 1970 SC 150.

[2] A.D.M Jabalpur v. S.Shukla , AIR 1976 SC 1207.

[3] Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, AIR 1981 SC 818.

[4] Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, AIR 1973 SC 1461.

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