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August 1, 2011 | by  | in Opinion |
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Laying Down The Law – Eyes Wide Shut

For years, law students have been obediently paying attention at law school. They’ve listened carefully to their lecturers, and they’ve studied hard for exams. But there is something law students don’t spend much time on—which is odd considering how important it is to the law itself.

And that thing is justice.

Throughout our legal educations we tip-toe around the concept, and we blithely accept that it’s important. But I can’t recall a single instance where the term was rigorously assessed. This is an interesting omission, given that the application, interpretation, and enactment of justice are embedded at the heart of the law. But we are still left with the question: what does justice actually mean?

Perhaps it’s not surprising that this question is roundly ignored by legal courses. Such lofty enquiries are beyond the scope of legal education. Law school’s ‘core business’ is the training and education of lawyers-to-be. It doesn’t set out to create philosophical warrior monks (although for public law students sometimes that’s an unintended consequence). But even in light of that it still seems odd that justice receives such scant attention.

One possible reason is that the term defies definition. Any assessment of justice will invariably be a contextual one; it is not something that you can easily put your finger on. What is just will be interpreted differently, by different people, at different times. Take for example the case of Cornelius Arie Smith-Voorkamp—the man with Asperger’s Syndrome who compulsively collects light fixtures and who stole one from an abandoned house after the February earthquake.

For many, Cornelius is nothing but a looter. He broke the law, and as a consequence any criminal sanction put on him will be a just one. In this way justice can be calculated; if you break the rules, then justice demands that you pay for your crimes whoever you are. And why not? Justice is blind.

But many of us would find this too harsh. Cornelius had an unassailable mental compulsion to do what he did; his actions cannot be easily explained away. Because of this, our view of justice can also change. A mathematical calculation no longer seems appropriate. Context demands a difference in justice.
It is this tension that has plagued our attempts at a finite conception of the term. Context matters and our view on what’s required to right a social wrong has fluctuated in response to social pressure—and will continue to do so. An eye for an eye may once have been socially acceptable, but embrace it too much
and the result is only blindness.

But blaming the problems of justice purely on context seems a little too easy. It makes everything a little too abstract. Context is obviously important, but it must not be forgotten that the application and enforcement of justice has been shaped by the advancement (or regression) of the law.

Any serious attempt to unpick the plexus of justice requires us to ask ourselves the question, “whose justice?” This again, is a subject that law students are not often presented with. We often forget how privileged we are—not in some kind of self-aggrandising way—but in a structural way. The values we infuse justice with are influenced by the books, precedents and cases we’ve read and the Lord Justices who wrote them. This is a privileged justice, it is a justice that reflects a legally predominant view, and it is a justice that may differ from what we expect others to accept.

Despite the medieval proclamations of those banging the drums of crime, justice is not a fixed concept. Perhaps in order to give the concept any real meaning, we have to constantly deny it one.

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About the Author ()

Conrad is a very grumpy boy. When he was little he had a curl in the middle of his forehead. When he was good, he was moderately good, but when he was mean he was HORRID. He likes guns, bombs and shooting doves. He can often be found reading books about Mussolini and tank warfare. His greatest dream is to invent an eighteen foot high mechanical spider, which has an antimatter lazer attached to its back.

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