Equality before the law

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Statue of Equality, Paris. Allegory of equality

Equality before the law, also known as: equality under the law, equality in the eyes of the law, or legal equality, is the principle that each independent human being must be treated equally by the law (principle of isonomy) and that all people are subject to the same laws of justice (due process).[1] Therefore, the law must guarantee that no individual or group of individuals should be privileged or discriminated by the government. Law also raises important and complex issues concerning equality, fairness, and justice. There is an old saying that 'All are equal before the law.' The author Anatole France said in 1894, "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread."[2] The belief in equality before the law is called legal egalitarianism. The principle of equality before the law is incompatible and ceases to exist with legal systems such as slavery, servitude, colonialism, monarchy, theocracy, or quotaism.

Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that "All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law."[3]

Thus, everyone must be treated equally under the law regardless of race, gender, national origin, color, ethnicity, religion, disability, or other characteristics, without privilege, discrimination, or bias. The general guarantee of equality is provided by most of the world's national constitutions (read the provisions here [4]), but the specifics vary widely. For example, while many constitutions guarantee equality regardless of race (read the provisions here[5]), only a few mention the right to equality regardless of nationality (read the provisions here [6]).

Equality before the law is one of the basic principles of liberalism.[7][8]


The 431 BCE funeral oration of Pericles, recorded in Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, includes a passage praising the equality among the free male citizens of the Athenian democracy:

If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way[9]

More common in antiquity was violent repression of even basic equality. Despite the recent overthrow of the Roman monarchy and the establishment of the Roman Republic and sacrosanct Tribunes of the Plebs, Cincinnatus's son Caeso led a gang that chased plebs from the forum to prevent the creation of equitable written laws. In Rome's case, the organization of the plebs and the patricians' dependence upon them as both laborers and soldiers meant the Conflict of the Orders was resolved by the establishment of the Twelve Tables and greater equality. Notionally, all citizens except the emperor were equal under Roman law in the imperial period. However, this did not obtain throughout most of the world and, even in Europe, the rise of aristocracies and nobility created unequal legal systems that lasted into the modern era.

Classical liberalism[edit]

Classical liberalism calls for equality before the law for all persons.[7] Classical liberalism, as embraced by libertarians and modern conservatives, opposes pursuing group rights at the expense of individual rights.[8] Lockean liberalism (the foundation for classical liberalism) is interpreted by others, however, as including social rights and responsibilities.[10]


Equality before the law is a tenet of some branches of feminism. In the nineteenth century, gender equality before the law was a radical goal, but later feminist views may hold that formal legal equality is not enough to create actual and social equality between women and men. An ideal of formal equality may penalize women for failing to conform to a male norm, while an ideal of different treatment may reinforce sexist stereotypes.[11]

In 1988, prior to serving as a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: "Generalizations about the way women or mean are – my life experience bears out –cannot guide me reliably in making decisions about particular individuals. At least in the law, I have found no natural superiority or deficiency in either sex. In class or in grading papers from 1963 to 1980, and now in reading briefs and listening to arguments in curt for over seventeen years, I have detected no reliable indicator or distinctly male or surely female thinking – even penmanship.".[12] In an ACLU's Women's Rights Project in the 1970s Ginsburg challenged, in Frontiero v. Richardson, the laws that gave health service benefits to wives of servicemen but not to husbands of servicewomen.[13] There are over 150 national constitutions that currently mention equality regardless of gender (click here [14] to explore the provisions).

Some radical feminists, however, have opposed equality before the law, because they think that it maintains the weak position of the weak.[15] Equality before the law, also known as: equality under the law, equality in the eyes of the law, or legal equality, is the principle that establishes that each independent human being must be treated equally by the law (principle of isonomy) and which all people are subject to the same laws of justice (due process).


The phrase "Equality before the law" is the motto of the State of Nebraska and appears on its state seal.

Parricide law[edit]

Article 200 of the Criminal Code of Japan, the penalty regarding parricide, was declared unconstitutional for violating the equality under the law by the Supreme Court of Japan in 1973. This was a result of the trial of the Tochigi patricide case.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ UN Article 7, the United Nations
  2. ^ (France, The Red Lily, Chapter VII).
  3. ^ The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  4. ^ https://www.constituteproject.org/search?lang=en&q=Equality
  5. ^ https://www.constituteproject.org/search?lang=en&key=equalgr4
  6. ^ https://www.constituteproject.org/search?lang=en&key=equalgr2
  7. ^ a b Chandran Kukathas, "Ethical Pluralism from a Classical Liberal Perspective," in The Many Pacqiuo and the One: Religious and Secular Perspectives on Ethical Pluralism in the Modern World, ed. Richard Madsen and Tracy B. Strong, Ethikon Series in Comparative Ethics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 61 (ISBN 0-691-09993-6).
  8. ^ a b Mark Evans, ed., Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Liberalism: Evidence and Experience (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 55 (ISBN 1-57958-339-3).
  9. ^ Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Written 431 BCE, Translated by Richard Crawley (1874), retrieved via Project Gutenberg.
  10. ^ Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Peter Laslett, ed., Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1960 (see "Introduction," pp. 114–26).
  11. ^ Jaggar, Alison. (1994) "Part One: Equality. Introduction." In Living with Contradictions: Controversies in Feminist Social Ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  12. ^ Jeff Rosen, "The Book of Ruth," New Republic, August 2, 1993, p. 19.
  13. ^ O'Dea, Suzanne. From Suffrage to the Senate: An Encyclopedia of American Women in Politics, ABC-CLIO, 1999
  14. ^ https://www.constituteproject.org/search?lang=en&key=equalgr1
  15. ^ Martha Chamallas, "Feminist Constructions of Objectivity: Multiple Perspectives in Sexual and Racial Harassment Litigation," Texas Journal of Women and the Law 1 (1992): pp. 95, 125, 131
  16. ^ Dean, Meryll (2002). Japanese legal system. Routledge via Google Books. p. 535

Further reading[edit]