In Law and Popular Culture

True story: At a farewell dinner, a colleague  distributed books from his bookshelf among his now former colleagues. He did so based on title only, and he gave me William Gaddis’ ’A Frolic of His Own’, a reference to the professional adventure that I have embarked on since. Now, I haven’t read the entire book yet (not light reading I think), but I was blown away by the very first, the very first line of the book. The line starts with ‘Justice’ and it has made it into my catalogue of favorite law quotes.


At my PhD defense, the very first question I got was: ’But what about justice?’ It had little to do with my PhD research and I am somewhat allergic – although not entirely unsympathetic – to cries of ’Justice!’ ever since. So like many – I assume anyway – I have always been conflicted about the relationship between justice and law, and this is why I love this quote:

“Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.”

The statement could imply that the law has nothing to do with justice. But that may be too cynical. I would qualify that and argue that the law does not necessarily produce justice. A lot of people get angry at, for instance, the result of legal proceedings. The suspect gets acquitted besides overwhelming evidence. Think OJ Simpson. Justice is not always done.

Law and Justice?

But isn’t the law all about justice? Well yes, but it just can’t. Justice is subjective and about morally desired outcomes. To a certain extent, the law tries to make justice objective. By way of politics, the subjective feelings of justice are channelled into law and legal process. If the sentiments about justice change, politics can change the law. The law aims to create some order in society by regulating behavior. But not all behaviors or sets of circumstances can be foreseen by the law or law makers. The law is framed in general terms and cannot capture all future events. There may be some undesired, unjust outcomes as a result of the law’s application.

Law versus Justice

In some cases, the law actually becomes a bar to justice. If the legal consequences of illegal behavior can be severe, as in criminal law, we’d better get it right. We do so by including all kinds of criteria, requirements, and the assumption that everybody is innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, two human rights may collide, like the freedom of speech with the freedom of religion. In recent times, we try to do justice by going after perpetrators of mass atrocities only to be blocked by the legal immunity of heads of state. We want to uphold human rights, but international law on the use of force doesn’t always allow military intervention to do so.

A just system

The law cannot always produce justice in every case. This may be utterly unacceptable to, let’s say, the family of a murder victim when the suspect walks free. A legal system is in real trouble when it is perceived as being systematically unjust. A society and its legal system must be seen as just on the whole, not just in any particular case. So I love this quote because it represents how people sometimes feel when they see one of those weirdly called ’miscarriages of justice’. These are not miscarriages of justice, but rather of law precisely because justice was not served. We strive for justice within the law. We can do no more.

Am I too skeptical about the law and justice? What is the biggest miscarriage of law that you have seen? Let me know in the comments below, or through Facebook or Twitter.

  • Judsom Crow

    I am almost ashamed to say that I was first introduced to the concept of Justice has nothing to do with the law by Rumpole of the Bailey, a Tv series with Leo Kern as Rumpole. But we know that art sometimes imitates life. UNREALISTIC you say? I daresay that one can find a number of trials, seeking justice, that have a surrealistic ambiance.

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