Albert Venn Dicey (February 4, 1835 – April 7, 1922) was a British jurist and constitutional law theorist who wrote An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885), which is considered part of the British constitution. He argued for the impartiality of the courts and insisted that not even those in the highest positions of power were exempt from law. Dicey's views held sway in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century, providing a solid basis for British society at the time. However, he became a very strong supporter of British colonialism, who vehemently opposed Irish Home Rule, which eventually occurred through a lengthy and unsatisfactory process.
Dicey gave law the highest priority in society. He insisted that “no person is above the law and it is law that rules all.” While such ideas resonated in British society in his day, the "Rule of Law" cannot be absolute when the laws themselves are imperfect, particularly when they show partiality to some people over others. This problem colored the end of Dicey's career, when he was unable to appreciate Irish grievances against British colonial rule, even though it was codified in law.
Dicey graduated from Balliol College, University of Oxford, and became a fellow of Trinity College in 1860. He was called to the bar in 1863, becoming one of the most distinguishing lawyers of his day. He combined law and political journalism, and wrote several smaller works in this early part of his life.
Dicey was appointed to the Vinerian Chair of English Law at Oxford in 1882, and became a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. There he published his famed An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885). With this work, Dicey’s name became known beyond British Isles, and he was cited in parliament in the Irish Home Rule question during the 1880s. Between 1886 and 1913 he wrote four books opposing Home Rule in Ireland.
In 1896, Dicey became one of the first professors of law at the newly established London School of Economics (LSE). He stayed at LSE lecturing from 1896 to 1899. There he published in 1896 his Conflict of Laws. Dicey also served as principal of the Working Men's College, London (1899–1912).
Dicey remained connected with Oxford, continuing to lecture there until his retirement in 1909. He died on April 7, 1922, in Oxford.
In his early career, Dicey was in favor of the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, and was rather influenced by his work. However, already by the 1880s he started to drift apart from liberal thinking, and warned against its dangers.
In his first major work, the seminal An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885), Dicey warned that political freedom was under attack by modern incursions against the "Rule of Law." He believed that the freedom British subjects enjoyed was dependent on two pillars: the sovereignty of Parliament and the supremacy of common law through the means of the courts' freedom from governmental interference. Dicey believed that in a society organized in that way, political freedom could be preserved and democratic society could function harmoniously.
The "Rule of Law" ensures that leaders, who were elected by the people and whom were given the power and authority by the people, always act in the best interest of those people. Dicey, however, warned that the law must be followed by all, as people in power often thought that they were “above the law.” Dicey argued that the inner tendency of all people in power is to satisfy their personal needs out of public resources. He thus insisted that “no person is above the law and it is law that rules all.” He said:
[E]very official, from the Prime Minister down to a constable or a collector of taxes, is under the same responsibility for every act done without legal justification as any other citizen. The Reports abound with cases in which officials have been brought before the courts, and made, in their personal capacity, liable to punishment, or to the payment of damages, for acts done in their official character but in excess of their lawful authority. [Appointed government officials and politicians, alike]…and all subordinates, though carrying out the commands of their official superiors, are as responsible for any act which the law does not authorise as is any private and unofficial person (Dicey  2006).
Dicey regarded parliament as the source of law, authorized to make laws that apply to all citizens without exception:
The principle of Parliamentary sovereignty means neither more nor less than this, namely, that Parliament thus defined has, under the English constitution, the right to make or unmake any law whatever; and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament (Dicey  2006).
Nevertheless, he saw the courts, the judges, as the interpreters of these laws, reflecting his understanding of the need for a system of checks and balances to ensure a just and harmonious society. Thus, the power of government is not unlimited, nor is the power of any law produced by the government, as the courts apply these laws through their own interpretation:
The fact that the most arbitrary powers of the English executive must always be exercised under Act of Parliament places the government, even when armed with the widest authority, under the supervision, so to speak, of the Courts. Powers, however extraordinary, which are conferred or sanctioned by statute, are never really unlimited, for they are confined by the words of the Act itself, and, what is more, by the interpretation put upon the statute by the judges. Parliament is supreme legislator, but from the moment Parliament has uttered its will as lawgiver, that will becomes subject to the interpretation put upon it by the judges of the land (Dicey  2006).
By the end of his career, Dicey became a strong supporter of British imperial colonialism. He vigorously opposed Irish Home Rule and spoke against it extensively from 1886 until shortly before his death, advocating that no concessions be made to Irish nationalism in relation to the government of any part of Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom. He believed that British rule “worked well” for Ireland, as well as other British colonies. He was thus bitterly disillusioned by the agreement in which Southern Ireland became a self-governing dominion, then called the Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland, Éire, or simply Ireland, separate from the United Kingdom.
Dicey’s other notable works include: The Law of Domicil (1879), England's Case Against Home Rule (1886), The Privy Council (1887), Conflict of Laws (1896), and Law and Public Opinion in England (1905).
Dicey’s analysis of the British constitution was highly influential in shaping the British political atmosphere at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many of the principles expressed in his book An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution have been used as the part of the British constitution, and have been taught in law schools ever since. His ideas resonated in British political language up until World War I.
However, his ideas opposing Home Rule for Ireland were finally rejected, and the southern counties of Ireland became independent.
All links retrieved October 25, 2016.
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