What Is Administrative Law?

Administrative law involves the review of decisions made by government agencies. It is the body of law that regulates these institutions, often through enforcement proceedings that resemble courtroom procedures.


It embodies principles that promote accountability, transparency and participation by the public in government affairs. It also has a control function to prevent misconduct on the part of public administrators.


Administrative law is the legal authority and procedures that structure federal and state governmental agencies that regulate a wide variety of economic activities and social issues. Governmental agencies exercise broad discretion to control the lives of many individuals and businesses, and their decisions often carry significant financial consequences. In the United States, Congress or state legislatures create the administrative laws that define the internal constraints within which government agencies operate; they set forth the external rules and regulations that govern their actions; they specify the procedures for reviewing those agencies’ decisions, and they establish the roles of judicial bodies and other governmental entities in relation to those agencies.

Individual states may also establish their own administrative laws that differ from those of the federal government in terms of agency structures, rulemaking requirements and review procedures. Attorneys should always be familiar with the laws of their jurisdiction in which they practice.

In the United States, a primary source of administrative law is the federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which details the process by which governmental agencies must adopt rules and regulations; conduct adjudicatory proceedings to resolve claims or disputes; and issue guidance for regulatory compliance. The APA also provides the means by which a party who disagrees with an agency decision may challenge that decision in a judicial forum. When a court reviews an administrative agency decision, it is not concerned with the merits of that decision; instead, the courts examine only whether the agency acted in an appropriate manner with regard to its statutory powers.


Administrative law provides a framework for regulating the actions of government agencies, both at the federal and state levels. It includes statutes that establish new laws as well as procedures for reviewing those decisions made by agencies that implement and interpret the law. It is often considered a subset of public law and is one of the most popular areas for legal study.

The underlying purpose of administrative law is to ensure that governmental agencies function efficiently, economically and in accordance with the constitution and common law. This is a difficult task. A system that allows agencies to operate without restraint would be disastrous for society, while a system that denies the rights of individuals is unacceptable.

Administrative agencies are primarily responsible for making rules in their specific areas of expertise. Some of these agencies are called regulatory agencies, while others are mainly involved in resolving disputes. These organizations are called tribunals. The Regulatory Agency and Tribunal Directory, available at the BC Admin Law website, lists dozens of provincial and federal agencies in a series of categories based on their primary functions.

To help limit their responsibilities and authority, most agencies are subject to significant amounts of oversight and control from various parts of the government, most notably the courts. This helps to prevent misconduct. However, Miller and Rabin (2018) suggest that this focus on preventing misconduct also leads to the development of a complex legal structure that may be difficult for government administrators to understand and navigate.

Defining Administrative Law

While Congress may enact broad public policies through statutes, it is the administrative agencies that administer, interpret, enforce and regulate those laws. The law that governs the activities of these agencies is called administrative law. It focuses on how these agencies operate and the external constraints upon them, such as constitutional limitations, statutory restrictions and judicial review. Administrative law also studies the procedures that these agencies follow and how they make their decisions.

For example, if an agency decides to change a regulation, it must follow a certain process outlined in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) before it can do so. The APA gives citizens and businesses the opportunity to file a petition for judicial review of an agency decision if they feel that the agency acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Before filing a petition for judicial review, however, the parties must first exhaust any appeals procedures that the agency offers.

The federal government has more than 100 administrative agencies that cover a wide range of issues such as transportation safety, homeland security and health care. Because of this, it is not surprising that many individuals and businesses hire attorneys who specialize in administrative law. They are needed to ensure that an individual or company’s rights are protected when an administrative agency denies a benefit or imposes a penalty for breaking an agency rule.

Defining Administrative Agencies

The vast number of laws in the United States makes it essential to have government organizations that create and enforce rules that explain how these laws are to be implemented. These agencies, called administrative agencies, help ensure that the law is carried out correctly. The creation and operation of these agencies is the subject of administrative law, a branch of law that deals with the rules and procedures created by these government entities.

Often referred to as “agency law” or simply “administrative law,” the field of administrative law encompasses several important issues that are central to the administration of government. These include the power and authority of agencies, their structures, the way they conduct their hearings, and their interactions with other governmental bodies and the public.

Examples of federal administrative agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Communications Commission, while state administrative agencies might include workers’ compensation boards or parole boards. Congress creates these agencies through enabling legislation that gives them the power to pass and enforce laws on a wide range of topics, including workplace safety and environmental protection.

The underlying principle of administrative law is that government officials have discretion in how they carry out their responsibilities, but they must also be accountable to the people who rely on their decisions. To this end, administrative law establishes a framework of checks and balances between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government, and between government agencies and private parties.