Definition, Nature, and Scope of Administrative Law

Administrative law governs the activities of administrative agencies of the government. It deals with the decision-making of administrative units like tribunals, boards or commissions that are part of a regulatory scheme. With the increase in government regulations in diverse sectors, administrative law has expanded substantially in the 20th century across countries.

What is Administrative Law?

As government functions expand qualitatively and quantitatively, a satisfactory definition of administrative law remains elusive. The most widely accepted definition is by Sir Ivor Jennings – “Administrative Law is the law relating to the administrative authorities.” However, this definition is too broad, blurring the distinction between constitutional law (which grants powers to agencies) and administrative law (which deals with how agencies exercise those powers).

According to Kenneth Culp Davis, administrative law concerns “the powers and procedures of administrative agencies, including the law governing judicial review of administrative action.” This definition rightly focuses on the procedures followed by agencies in exercising powers. However, it excludes other non-quasi-judicial, non-rulemaking functions.

As per I.P. Massey, administrative law deals with “the organisation and powers of administrative and quasi-administrative agencies and prescribes principles and rules followed in official actions related to individual liberty and freedom.” This indicates the focus areas – conferment of powers to agencies, principles guiding official actions, and safeguarding individual rights.

The essential pillars of administrative law are checking abuse of power, ensuring impartial adjudication, protecting citizen rights and making administration accountable. The ambit covers rule-making, rule/dispute adjudication and other actions like investigation, supervision and prosecution incidental to the primary functions.

Nature and Scope

Administrative law is public law, unlike private law governing relationships between individuals. It is an uncodified judge-made law. It studies the organization and powers of administrative agencies and development of principles like natural justice, reasonableness and fairness that guide official actions.

The actions covered within the scope of administrative law include:

  1. quasi-legislative actions (rule-making);
  2. quasi-judicial actions (dispute adjudication);
  3. administrative actions (rule application);
  4. ministerial actions (pure administrative).

The incidental functions include investigation, supervision, advice, and prosecution related to the primary functions.

A key focus area is the procedure established by statute or code which agencies must follow in decision-making impacting citizen rights and liabilities. The mechanisms to keep agencies within legal bounds also form part of the study of administrative law – judicial review, legislative control, procedural control, executive control and social control.

With government regulations expanding in diverse areas like police, trade, manufacturing, environment and transport, administrative law has grown substantially to deal with decisions of tribunals and regulators in these complex domains of socio-economic activity.


Administrative law deals with a vital area of public law. Its continuing evolution is imperative for checks and balances in the modern regulatory state so that citizen rights and liberties remain protected even as complex policy objectives are pursued.

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