Law or Justice?

When you make a comment like ‘I believe in justice’, you wouldn’t generally expect the answer: ‘Then why do you study law?’

At least I didn’t. Nonetheless, it initiated a wave of laughter throughout the room, not the least of which did come from myself. Nowadays, law is often regarded as a tool to achieve a personal goal. Cases before a court are not always about ‘what’s right’ or ‘who acted fairly’, it’s a question of who can use the law to their advantage in a way that swings the outcome of a case in their favour. It can be perceived as a game of which the rules are constantly changing and whoever can use (or work around) the rules best, wins the game.

TV shows and movies about law and justice reinforce this use of the law. Any of my fellow fans of the TV series Suits would, in my opinion, be inclined to agree. We see Harvey Specter constantly throwing around motions and affidavits to use the law to his client’s or firm’s advantage. We identify with these characters, we grow to ‘love’ them and therefore we have the tendency to root for them to achieve the outcome they’re aiming for. Even if it is not necessarily what the law intended. We hope they get out of whatever illegal thing it is they did by watching the lawyers cleverly bend or break the rules.

Programs like Law and Order or Crime Scene Investigation show the other end of this spectrum. They depict enforcers of the law that push the boundaries and sometimes cross them in order to ensure justice is served. However, if we look at this critically, they are using the law to create the justice they think should be served, as opposed to adhering to how and why the law was actually set up.

And then there’s the cases in which we compromise justice, because, as Nick Rice said in Law Abiding Citizen, ‘Some justice is better than no justice at all’. In the movie, two perpetrators are being prosecuted and the one that is seen as the main actor of the crime agrees to testify against the other in order to gain immunity for the crime for himself. The argument is that it is better to ensure that only one of the perpetrators faces the consequences of his actions, than to risk both of them being exonerated. In other words, it’s better to win part of the game, than to risk losing all together.

We tend to accept these forms of playing with the law because when we watch these shows or movies, we believe in the outcome that is being depicted as favourable. But does that affect the way we see the law in real life as well? Is this the way we want the law to work? Or is it just a reality we’ve come to accept, because we simply don’t know any better?