31 January 2012 Written by  Aberham Yohannes and Desta G/michael

Scope of Administrative Law

I- Public Law/Private Law Divide

The boundaries of administrative law extend only when administrative agencies and public officials exercise statutory or public powers, or when performing public duties. In both civil and common-law countries, these types of functions are sometimes called “public law functions” to distinguish them from “private law functions”. The former govern the relationship between the state and the individual, whereas the later governs the relationship between individual citizens and some forms of relationships with the state, like relationship based on government contract.

For example, if a citizen works in a state owned factory and is dismissed, he or she would sue as a “private law function”. However, if he is a civil servant, he or she would sue as a “public law function”. Similarly, if residents of the surrounding community were concerned about a decision to enlarge the state- owned factory because of environmental pollution, the legality of the decision could be reviewed by the courts as a “public law function.” It is also to be noted that a contract between an individual or business organization with a certain administrative agency is a private law function governed by rules of contract applicable to any individual – individual relationship. However, if it is an administrative contract it is subject to different rules (see civ. code art 3136 ff).

The point here is that the rules and principles of administrative law are applicable in a relationship between citizens and the state; they do not extend to cases where the nature of the relationship is characterized by a private law function.

B) Substance vs. Procedure

Many of the definition and approaches to administrative law are limited to procedural aspects of the subject. The focus of administrative law is mainly on the manner and procedure of exercising power granted to administrative agencies by the legislature. Fox describes the trend and interaction between substance and procedure as:

‘It is the unifying force of the administrative process – in dramatic contrast to the wide variety of substantive problems with which agencies deal- that has persuaded most administrative law professors to concentrate on agency procedure rather than agency substance.  Hence, to a wider extent, the study of administrative law has been limited to analyzing the manner in which matters move through an agency, rather than the wisdom of the matters themselves.’

With respect to judicial review, the basic question asked is not whether a particular decision is “right”, or whether the judge, or a the Minister, or officials have come to a different decision. The questions are what is the legal limit of power or reasonable limit of discretion the law has conferred on the official? that power been exceeded, or otherwise unlawfully exercised? Therefore, administrative law is not concerned with the merits of the decision, but with the decision making process.

1.3 Theoretical   Perspectives

The role of law in modern state is evidently a complex one. The legal thought on administrative law is largely shaped by the role of law generally and the role of administrative law in public administration specifically. The traditional view of administrative law is that it should aim to bolster the rule of law and ensure the accountability of executive government to the will of parliament and, at least indirectly, to the people. Cane describes the role of courts in achieving such purpose of administrative law in the following woeds:

“It is often said that the enforcement of statutory duties and the control of the exercise of statutory powers by the courts is ultimately justifiable in terms of the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy: even though parliament has not expressly authorized the courts to supervise governmental activity, it can not have intended breaches of duty by governmental agencies to go un-remedied (even if no remedy is provided in the statute itself), nor can it have intended to give administrative agencies the freedom to exceed or abuse their powers, or to act unreasonably. It is the task of the courts to interpret and enforce the provisions of statutes, which impose duties and confer powers on administrative agencies. In so doing they are giving effect to the will of parliament.”

This approach puts more emphasis on the role of courts through judicial reviews   to control arbitrary and ultravires administrative action. Presently, the perspectives on administrative law are summarized by two contrasting models labeled by Harlow and Rowling  as ‘red light’ and ‘green light’ theories. The former is more conservative and control-oriented; the latter is more utilitarian (socialist) in orientation and facilitative in nature. Both significantly serve to describe the concept of  administrative law, and to act as normative (i.e. moral and political) suppositions about what its role in society ought to be.

A)  Red Light Theory

The red light approach advocates strong role for the courts to review administrative decisions. It considers that the function of law is to control the excesses of state power.  “The red light view can be seen to originate from a political tradition of 19th century laissez faire (minimal state) theory. It embodied a deep-rooted suspicion of   governmental power and a desire to minimize the encroachment of the state on the rights (especially property rights) of individuals.

According to this theory of state, the best government is the one that governs least. Wider power means danger to the rights and liberty of citizens. Hence, the red- light theory serves the function of controlling excess and arbitrary power, mainly by the courts. Its descriptive feature is that, on the one hand, it gives much attention on control of governmental power, and on the other hand, it is confident that the effective controlling instrument are the courts through judicial review; As Harlow and Rawlings put it:

“Behind the formalist tradition, we can often discern a preference for a minimalist state. It is not surprising, therefore, to find many authors believing that the primary function of administrative law should be to control any excess of state power and subject it to legal, and more especially judicial control. It is this conception of administrative law that we have called ‘red light theory”.

B) Green Light Theory

The green light approach considers that the function of administrative law is to facilitate the operation of the state. It is based on the rationale that bureaucrats will function most efficiently in the absence of intervention. Administrative law should aim to help simplifying the procedures and enhance efficiency. It starts from the standpoint of a more positive, largely social and democratic view of the state.

The green light theory is originated from the utilitarian tradition, which proposes promoting the greatest good for the greatest number. According to the utilitarian theory, the state is expected to provide the minimum standards of provision, including housing, education, health, social security, and local services. To provide maximum satisfaction for most of its people, the state should assume a broader role, hence, should possess wider powers. The green light theory broadly supports the introduction of policies aiming at developing public service provisions. Law is perceived as a useful weapon and an enabling tool. It is something very concrete and can provide in principle, at least, the proper authority and framework with which to govern consensually. It regards law not as a controlling mechanism, rather as facilitative tool. Consequently, it considers the court’s intervention as an obstacle to efficiency.

Harlow & Rawling write:

Because they see their own function as the resolution of disputes and because they see the administrative function from the outside, lawyers traditionally emphasize external control through adjudication. To the lawyer, law is the policeman; it operates as an external control, often retrospectively. But a main concern of green light writers is to minimize the influence of the courts. Courts, with their legalistic values, were seen as obstacles to progress and the control which they exercise as unrepresentative and undemocratic. To emphasis a crucial point in green light theory, decision making by an elite judiciary imbued with a legalistic, rights based ideology and eccentric vision of the ‘public interest’ was never a plausible counter to authoritarianism.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 May 2012 13:05