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Definition, Purpose, Scope and Sources of Administrative Law

A) Definition

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.

 B) Purpose of Administrative Law

There has never been any serious doubt that administrative law is primarily concerned with the control of power. With the increase in level of state involvement in many aspects of everyday life during the first 80 years of the twentieth century, the need for a coherent and effective body of rules to govern relations between individuals and the state became essential. The 20th century saw the rise of the “regulatory state” and a consequent growth in administrative agencies of various kinds engaged in the delivery of a wide variety of public programs under statutory authority. This means, in effect, the state nowadays controls and supervises the lives, conduct and business of individuals in so many ways. Hence controlling the manner of exercise of public power so as to ensure rule of law and respect for the right and liberty of individuals may be taken as the key purpose of administrative law.

According to Peer Leyland and Tery Woods (Peter Leyland and Terry Woods, Textbook on Administrative Law, 4th ed. ) Administrative law embodies general principles applicable to the exercise of the powers and duties of authorities in order to ensure that the myriad and discretionary powers available to the executive conform to basic standards of legality and fairness. The ostensible purpose of these principles is    to ensure that there is accountability, transparency and effectiveness in exercising of power in the public domain, as well as the observance of rule of law.

Peer Leyland and Tery Woods have identified the following as the underlying purposes of administrative law.

Similarly I.P. Massey (I.P. Massey, Administrative Law, 5th ed.) identifies the four basic bricks of the foundation of administrative law as:

To realize these basic purposes, it is necessary to have a system of administrative law rooted in basic principles of rule of law and good administration. A comprehensive, advanced and effective system of administrative law is underpinned by the following three broad principles:

Administrative justice, which at its core, is a philosophy that in administrative decision- making the rights and interests of individuals should be properly safe guarded.

Executive accountability, which has the aim of ensuring that those who exercise the executive (and coercive) powers of the state can be called on to explain and justify the way in which they have gone about that task.

Good administration- Administrative decision and action should conform to universally accepted standards, such as rationality, fairness, consistency and transparency.

C) Sources of Administration Law

Administrative law principles and rules are to be found in many sources. The followings  are the main sources of administrative law in Ethiopia.

The Constitution

The F.D.R.E constitution contains some provisions dealing with the manner and principle of government administration and accountability of public bodies and officials. It mainly provides broad principles as to the conduct and accountability of government, the principle of direct democratic participation by citizens and the rule of law. It also embodies the principle of separation of powers by allocating lawmaking power to the house of people’s representatives, executive power cumulatively to the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers, and finally the power to interpret the laws to the judiciary. Art, 77(2) talks about the power of                  Council of Ministers to determine the internal organizational structure of ministries and other organs of government, and also Art 77(3) envisages the possibility of delegation of legislative power are also relevant provisions for the study of the administrative law, (see also Articles 9(1), 12, 19(4), 25, 26,37,40, 50(9), 54(6)(7) 55(7), (14)(15), (17),(18),58,66(2),72-77,82,83,93,101-103 of F.D.R.E constitution).


Laws adopted by parliament, which may have the effect of creating an administrative agency, or specify specific procedure to be complied by the specific authority in exercising its powers, can be considered a primary sources for the study of administrative law. The statute creating an agency known as enabling act or parent act, clearly determines the limit of power conferred on a certain agency. An administrative action exceeding such limit is an ultra virus, and in most countries the courts will be ready to intervene and invalidate such action. Moreover, parliament, when granting a certain power, is expected to formulate minimum procedure as to how that power can be exercised to ensure fairness in public administration. This can be done, on the one hand, by imposing a general procedural requirement in taking any administrative action mainly administrative rule making and administrative adjudication just like the American Administrative Procedure Act (APA). And on the other hand, parliament in every case may promulgate specific statutes applicable in different situations.

 Delegated Legislation

Rules, directives and regulations issued by Council of Ministers and each administrative agencies are also the main focus of administrative law. Administrative law scholarship is concerned with delegated legislation to determine its constitutionality and legality or validity and ensure that it hasn’t encroached the fundamental rights of citizens. One aspect of such guarantee is subjecting the regulation and directive to comply with some minimum procedural requirements like consultation (public participation) and publication (openness in government administration). Arbitrary exercise of power leads to arbitrary administrative action, which in turn, leads to violation of citizen’s rights and liberty. Hence, the substance and procedure of delegated legislation is an important source of administrative law.

 Judicial Opinion

Much, but not most, of the doctrine that envelops and controls administrative power is found in judicial analysis of other sources. However, much of administrative law will not be found solely in judicial opinions. Furthermore, the opinions themselves must be carefully pursued to avoid generalizations about controls on agency behavior that may not be appropriate, as the outcome of many cases may turn on particular statutory language that may not necessarily reflect the nature of disputes in other agencies.

The American experience as to judicial opinion influencing administrative law is characterized by lack of generalization and fluctuating impacts. These may be due to two reasons. First, cases coming before the courts through judicial review are insignificant compared to the magnitude of government bureaucracy and the administrative process. Second, even as between two apparently similar cases, there is a possibility for points of departure.

In Ethiopia, judicial opinion is far from being considered even as the least source of administrative law. Only cases less than 1% go to court through judicial reviews. The subject is not known by judges, lawyers, the legal profession and administrative officials, let alone by the poor and laypersons who are expected to seek judicial remedy for unlawful administrative acts and abuse of power by public officials. However given the fact that presently the rule of precedent is applicable, judicial opinion, it is hoped, may have a limited role as one of the sources of administrative law in Ethiopia.

C) 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.

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