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The never-changing face of justice

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There are occasions that I consider more fundamental questions beyond criminology, such as the nature of justice.  Usually whilst reading some new sentencing guidelines or new procedures but on occasions major events such as the fire at Grenfell and the ensuing calls from former residents for accountability and of course justice!  There are good reasons why contemplating the nature of justice is so important in any society especially one that has recently embarked on a constitutional discussion following the Brexit referendum.

Justice is perhaps one of the most interesting concepts in criminology; both intangible and tangible at the same time.  In every day discourses we talk about the Criminal Justice System as a very precise order of organisations recognising its systemic nature or as a clear journey of events acknowledging its procedural progression.  Both usually are summed up on the question I pose to students; is justice a system or a process?  Of course, those who have considered this question know only too well that justice is both at different times.  As a system, justice provides all those elements that make it tangible to us; a great bureaucracy that serves the delivery of justice, a network of professions (many of which are staffed by our graduates) and a structure that (seemingly) provides us all with a firm sense of equity.  As a process, we identify each stage of justice as an autonomous entity, unmolested by bias, thus ensuring that all citizens are judged on the same scales.  After all, lady justice is blind but fair!

This is our justice system since 1066 when the Normans brought the system we recognise today and even when, despite uprisings and revolutions such as the one that led to the 1215 signing of the Magna Carta, many facets of the system have remained quite the same.  An obvious deduction from this is that the nature of justice requires stability and precedent in order to function.  Tradition seems to captivate people; we only need a short journey to the local magistrates’ court to see centuries old traditions unfold. I imagine that for any time traveler, the court is probably the safest place to be, as little will seem to them to be out of place.

So far, we have been talking about justice as a tangible entity as used by professionals daily.  What about the other side of justice?  The intangible concept on fairness, equal opportunity and impartiality?  This part is rather contentious and problematic. This is the part that people call upon when they say justice for Grenfell, justice for Stephen Lawrence, justice for Hillsborough.  The people do not simply want a mechanism nor a process, but they want the reassurance that justice is not a privilege but a cornerstone of civic life.  The irony here; is that the call for justice, among the people who formed popular campaigns that either led or will lead to inquiries often expose the inadequacies, failings and injustices that exist(ed) in our archaic system.

These campaigns, have made obvious something incredibly important, that justice should not simply appear to be fair, but it must be fair and most importantly, has to learn and coincide with the times.  So lady justice may be blind, but she may need to come down and converse with the people that she seeks to serve, because without them she will become a fata morgana,a vision that will not satisfy its ideals nor its implementation.  Then justice becomes another word devoid of meaning and substance.  Thirty years to wait for an justice is an incredibly long time and this is perhaps this may be the lesson we all need to carry forward.

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