Constitutional Law and Administrative Law

Administrative law is categorized as public law since it governs the relationship between the government and the individual. The same can be said of constitutional law. Hence, it is undeniable that these two areas of law, subject to their differences, also share some common features. With the exception of the English experience, it has never been difficult to make a clear distinction between administrative law and constitutional law. However, so many administrative lawyers agree that administrative law cannot be fully comprehended with out a basic knowledge of constitutional law. As Justice Gummov has made it clear “The subject of administrative law can not be understood or taught without attention to its constitutional foundation”

This is true because of the close relationship between these two laws. To the early English writers there was no difference between administrative and constitutional law. Therefore, Keitch observed that it is ‘logically impossible to distinguish administrative law from constitutional law and all attempts to do so are artificial.”

However, in countries that have a written constitution, their difference is not so blurred as it is in England. One typical difference is related to their scope. While constitutional law deals, in general, with the power and structures of government, i.e. the legislative, the executive and the judiciary, administrative law in its scope of study is limited to the exercise of power by the executive branch of government. The legislative and the judicial branches are relevant for the study of administrative law only when they exercise their controlling function on administrative power.

Constitutional law, being the supreme law of the land, formulates fundamental rights which are inviolable and inalienable. Hence, it supersedes all other laws including administrative law. Administrative law does not provide rights. Its purpose is providing principles, rules and procedures and remedies to protect and safeguard fundamental rights. This point, although relevant to their differences, can also be taken as a common ground shared by constitutional and administrative law. To put it in simple terms, administrative law is a tool for implementing the constitution.  Constitutional law lays down principles like separation of power and the rule of law. An effective system of administrative law actually implements and gives life to these principles. By providing rules as to the manner of exercising power by the executive, and simultaneously effective controlling mechanisms and remedies, administrative law becomes a pragmatic tool in ensuring the protection of fundamental rights. In the absence of an effective system of administrative law, it is inconceivable to have a constitution which actually exists in practical terms.

Similarly, the interdependence between these two subjects can be analyzed  in light of the role of administrative law to implement basic principles of good administration enshrined in the F.D.R.E. constitution. The constitution in Articles 8(3), 12(1) and 12(2), respectively provides the principles of public participation, transparency and accountability in government administration. As explained above, the presence of a developed system of administrative law is sine qua non for the practical realization of these principles.

Administrative law is also instrumental in enhancing the development of constitutional values such as rule of law and democracy. The rules, procedures and principles of administrative law, by making public officials, comply with the limit of the power as provided in law, and checking the validity and legality of their actions, subjects the administration to the rule of law. This in turn sustains democracy. Only, in a government firmly rooted in the principle of rule of law, can true democracy be planted and flourished.

Judicial review, which is the primary mechanism of ensuring the observance of rule of law, although mostly an issue within the domain of administrative law, should look in the constitutional structure for its justification and scope. In most countries, the judicial power of the ordinary courts to review the legality of the actions of the executive and administrative   agencies emanates from the constitution. The constitution is the supreme document, which confers the mandate on the ordinary courts. Most written constitutions contain specific provisions allocating judicial review power to the high courts, or the Supreme Court, including the grounds of review and the nature    and type of remedies, which could be granted to the aggrieved parties by the respective courts.

A basic issue commonly for administrative law and constitutional law is the scope of judicial review. The debate over scope is still continuing and is showing a dynamic fluctuation, greatly influenced by the ever changing and ever expanding features of the form and structure of government   and public administration. The ultimate mission of the role of the courts as ‘custodians of liberty’, unless counter balanced   against the need for power and discretion of the executive, may ultimately result in unwarranted encroachment, which may have the effect of paralyzing the administration and endangering the basic constitutional principle of separation of powers. This is to mean that the administrative    law debate over the scope of judicial review is simultaneously a constitutional debate.

Lastly, administrative and constitutional law, share a common ground, and supplement each other in their mission to bring about administrative justice. Concern for the rights of the individual has been identified as a fundamental concern of administrative law. It ultimately tries to attain administrative justice. Sometimes, the constitution may clearly provide right to administrative justice. Recognition of the principles of administrative justice is given in few bills of rights or constitutional documents. Australia and South Africa may be mentioned in this respect.

Constitutional law needs to be understood to include more than the jurisprudence surrounding the express, and implied provisions of any constitution. In its broader sense, constitutional law connotes “the laws and legal principles that determine the allocation of decision-making functions amongst the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, and that define the essential elements of the relationship between the individual and agencies of the state”. Wade has observed that administrative law is a branch of constitutional law and that the “connecting thread” is “the quest for administrative justice”.