17 March 2011 Written by  Aberham Yohannes and Desta G/michael

Introduction to Administrative Law


There is a great divergence of opinion regarding the definition of concept of the administrative law. The is because of the tremendous increase in the administrative process that it makes impossible to attempt any precise definition of administrative law which can cover the entire range of the administrative process. Hence one has to expect differences of scope and emphasis in defining administrative law. This is true not only due to the divergence of the administrative process within a given country, but also because of the divergence of the scope of the subject in the continental and Anglo – American legal systems.

However, two important facts should be taken into account in an attempt of understanding and defining administrative law. Firstly, administrative law is primarily concerned with the manner of exercising governmental power. The decision making process is more important than the decision itself. Secondly, administrative law cannot fully be defined without due regard to the functional approach. This is to mean that the function (purpose) of administrative law should be the underlying element of any definition. The ultimate purpose of administrative law is controlling exercise of governmental power. The ‘control aspect’ impliedly shades some light on the other components of its definition. Bearing in mind these two factors, let us now try to analyze some definitions given by scholars and administrative lawyers.

Austin has defined administrative law, as the law which determines the ends and modes to which the sovereign power shall be exercised. In his view, the sovereign power shall be exercised either directly by the monarch or indirectly by the subordinate political superiors to whom portions of those powers are delegated or committed in trust.

Schwartz has defined administrative law as “the law applicable to those administrative agencies, which possess delegated legislation and adjudicative authority.’ This definition is a narrower one. Among other things, it is silent as to the control mechanisms and those remedies available to parties affected by an administrative action.

Jennings has defined Administrative law as “the law relating to the administration. It determines the organization, powers and duties of administrative authorities. Massey criticizes this definition because it fails to differentiate administrative and constitutional law. It lays entire emphasis on the organization, power and duties to the exclusion of the manner of their exercise.  In other words, this definition does not give due regard to the administrative process, i.e. the manner of agency decision making, including the rules, procedures and principles it should comply with.

Dicey like Jennings with out differencing administrative law from constitutional law defines it in the following way. ‘Firstly, it relates to that portion of a nation’s legal systems which determines the legal status and liabilities of all state officials. Secondly, defines the rights and liabilities of private individuals in their dealings with public officials. Thirdly, specifies the procedures by which those rights and liabilities are enforced.’

This definition is mainly concerned with one aspect of administrative law, namely judicial control of public officials. It should be noted, that the administrative law, also governs legislative and institutional control mechanisms of power. Dicey’s definition also limits itself to the study of state officials. However, in the modern administrative state, administrative law touches other types of quasi- administrative agencies like corporations, commissions, universities and sometimes, even private domestic organizations. Davis who represents the American approach defines administrative law as; “The law that concerns the powers and procedures of administrative agencies, specially the law governing judicial review of administrative action.” The shortcoming of this definition according to, Massey is that it excludes rule - application or purely administrative power of administrative agencies. However, it should be remembered that purely administrative functions are not strictly within the domain of administrative law, just like rule making (legislative) and adjudicative (judicial) powers. Davis’s definition is indicative of the approach towards administrative law, which lays great emphasis on detailed, and specific rule-making and adjudicative procedures and judicial review through the courts for any irregularity. He excludes control mechanisms through the lawmaker and institution like the ombudsman.

Massey gives a wider and working definition of administrative law in the following way.

“ Administrative law is that branch of public law which deals with the organization and powers of administrative and quasi administrative agencies and prescribes the principles and rules by which an official action is reached and reviewed in relation to individual liberty and freedom”

From this and the previous definitions we may discern that the following are the concerns of administrative law.

It studies powers of administrative agencies. The nature and extent of such powers is relevant to determine whether any administrative action is ultravires or there is an abuse of power. It studies the rules, procedures and principles of exercising these powers. Parliament, when conferring legislative or adjudicative power on administrative agencies, usually prescribes specific rules governing manner of exercising such powers. In some cases, the procedure may be provided as a codified act applicable to all administrative agencies. It also studies rules and principles applicable to the manner of exercising governmental powers such as principles of fairness, reasonableness, rationality and the rules of natural justice.

It studies the controlling mechanism of power. Administrative agencies while exercising their powers may exceed the legal limit abuse their power or fail to comply with minimum procedural requirements. Administrative law studies control mechanisms like legislative & institutional control and control by the courts through judicial review.

Lastly it studies remedies available to aggrieved parties whose rights and interests may be affected by unlawful and unjust administrative actions. Administrative law is concerned with effective redress mechanisms to aggrieved parties. Mainly it is concerned with remedies through judicial review, such as certiorari, mandamus, injunction and habeaus corpus.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 May 2012 13:05
More in this category: « Sources of Administration Law