Book chapter

Judicial Controls Over the Bureaucracy (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Judicial control over the bureaucracy is a means to defend the rule of law and important principles of democratic governance. It refers to the power of the courts to consider whether the actions of public authorities respect the limits prescribed by law. Regimes of judicial control vary in legal and administrative systems. Two major traditions can be mainly distinguished. The first characterizes continental Europe. It assigns judicial review to specialized administrative courts and involves a special branch of law, that is, administrative law. The second relies on ordinary courts and characterizes the Anglo-American system of common law. The two traditions also differ regarding the role of the courts and particularly their possibility to shape rules (common law tradition) or to apply rules (continental tradition).The expansion of state activities, including economic and social regulation and welfare service provision, has blurred the old politics–administration distinction since more and more decisions are delegated by parliaments to the administration, endowing it with wide discretionary powers. These developments have added a new meaning to the implementation of the rule of law. When the content of decisions is bound by a legal rule, legal compliance is more straightforward than when there is a margin of appreciation and choice. Circumscribing administrative discretion passes first and foremost from regulating the process of decision-making. Procedural standards have indeed been an area of primary concern for courts. Increasingly, nevertheless, substantive aspects of the administrative decision-making process and even service provision come under judicial scrutiny. Its extent inevitably differs from one legal system to another.The intensity of judicial review and its impact on (a) administrative operation and (b) policy decisions raise critical questions: how is it possible to achieve a balance between managerial flexibility, efficiency, and responsibility on the one hand and legal accountability on the other? To what extent may the courts substitute their own judgment for that of policymakers and the administrative or expert opinion underlying the decision under examination? How far do they go in scrutinizing policymaking and implementation?Judicial control involves constraining as well as constructive effects on the administration. It may contribute to an institution-building process (e.g., strengthening of Weberian-type features, increasing formalization, etc.) and to the agenda-building process, and it may influence policymaking. In certain contexts, courts even tend to become political actors. The reverse side is that they may step into matters of management and policymaking for which they are not prepared or institutionally responsible. This points to potential tensions between the administration (the executive) and the judiciary but also underlines the limitations of judicial control. Delicate issues regarding the separation of powers may emerge. Furthermore, cost, delays, the degree of administrative compliance with judicial decisions, and the ability of courts to integrate into their reasoning issues of efficiency and effectiveness constitute growing challenges to judicial control.