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Protection of the Rule of Law in Europe


Admission requirements

Background in law and sufficient command of English. Preferably students are familiar with the basics of Public International Law and EU Law.


The main purpose of this course is to reflect on the concept of the rule of law and to provide an overview of the various European systems that have been developed to protect it. After the Second World War, the Council of Europe was established to protect and promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Most attention went to human rights: the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was adopted, the European Court of Human Rights was established and an impressive body of case-law developed. For decades, the rule of law was more or less taken for granted: the Council of Europe Member States – West European States during the Cold War, joined by States in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall – were all democracies adhering to notions like the separation of powers, independence of the judiciary and so on. But in recent years the consensus has disappeared. In several countries politicians emerged who advocated the ‘illiberal democracy’. In some countries the independence of the judiciary is under pressure, in others the merits of parliamentary democracy is questioned. In the context of the European Union, a special procedure was initiated under the so-called Rule of Law Mechanism against Poland; European Parliament called for steps to be taken against Hungary; in 2019 the European Commission proposed to cut funds to EU countries that do not uphold the rule of law.

So – what exactly is the rule of law and how do we protect it? In this course we will trace the historic roots of the concept, in different jurisdictions, and we will explore contemporary definitions. We will examine to what extent the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights offers protection, we will discuss the contribution of other Council of Europe bodies, such as the Venice Commission, and we will pay attention to the role of the European Union. This new course, which is offered to exchange students in the first place, is intended for law students. Students from other backgrounds who take an interest in human rights are welcome to attend, but they should realise that the emphasis will be on legal questions and procedure rather than on philosophical or sociological aspects. As said, the course is primarily intended for exchange students. If any place is left, Leiden based students are welcome to follow the course as a keuzevak, as part of the Bachelors programme.

Objectives of the course
The course aims on the one hand to provide an overview of the historic and contemporary conceptions of the rule of law. On the other hand, te course will seek to map the various European systems that have been developed to protect the rule of law and the way they operate. In doing so the course will explain the background and the significance in this respect of the ECHR and analyse the most case law of the ECtHR. It will also analyse the role of pother Council of Europe bodies and of the European Union in protecting the rule of law.

Achievement levels
The following achievement levels apply with regard to the course:
At the end of this course, and on the basis of the assigned materials, students can:

  • explain the concept and the most important characteristics of the rule of law;

  • critically reflect on these concepts and characteristics as they developed over time;

  • solve a fictional case concerning rule of law issues addressed during this course;

  • write a short essay concerning specific situations where pertinent rule of law issues were raised.


The timetable of this course can be found in uSis.

Mode of instruction

  • 10 interactive lectures (2 hours each).

  • Required preparation by students: preparation of the assigned reading materials.

Assessment method

Examination form(s)

  • Written exam, consisting of a combination of essay questions and problem questions (80% of the grade)

  • A short essay or case note, to be written jointly with another student (20% of the grade)

Those of you who fail the exam are entitled to sit a re-examination. Depending on the number of students failing the exam, the re-sit may take the form of a written or oral exam.

Areas to be tested within the exam

  • Knowledge of the concept of the rule of law and its historic development; knowledge of the ECHR and its protection mechanisms, as applied in areas relevant to the rule of law; similar knowledge as regards other relevant Council of Europe bodies and the European Union; ability to critically assess evolutions and new problems.

  • The examination syllabus consists of the required reading (case law and literature) for the course, the course information guide and the subjects taught in the lectures, the seminars and all other instructions which are part of the course.

Reading list

Obligatory course materials

  • Tom Bingham, The Rule of Law (Penguin, 2011)

  • The reader will refer to further literature and case law as assigned in the reader. Students are expected to collect these course materials themselves (these are easily accessible online or in the library).

Course information guide
See reader.


  • The reader will contain all practical information.

  • The reader will be available on Brightspace three weeks before the start of the course.

Recommended course materials

See the reader for an extensive list of recommended reading.


Students have to register for courses and exams through uSis.
Exchange students have priority and will be registered for the course first. Any remaining seats will be available for students from Leiden University and other Dutch Universities.

Contact information

  • Coordinator: Prof. dr. R.A. Lawson

  • Work address: KOG, room B1.23

  • Contact information: By appointment through e-mail

  • Telephone number: +31 (0)71 527 7741

  • Email:


  • Institute: Public Law

  • Department: European Law

  • Room number secretary: KOG, B. 1.11

  • Opening hours: Monday to Friday 09:00 – 17:00

  • Telephone number secretary: +31 (0)71 527 3596

  • Email: