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Legal skills and debates in Scotland
Legal skills and debates in Scotland

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3  Finally: is it all about justice?

The traditional image of justice was introduced earlier in this course and the symbolism of the scales and sword were explained. Justice is often seen as the main aim of the law, but it is not always achieved in every case. What one individual regards as justice may not always match another individual’s views. It is often thought that applying rules equally to all people ensures justice. If the rules are rigid, however, injustice may result.

Three traditional images of justice
Figure 1Images of justice

Justice is sometimes described as what distinguishes good laws from bad. Injustice occurs if a person’s rights are overridden, thus rights are inextricably linked with justice. A legal system that allows people to be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process is unjust. Justice is done when the rules of law are applied fairly. One rule of justice, which you encountered earlier in this course, is that like cases should be treated alike. The system of precedent is an example of this. However, even this rule is unlikely to produce justice in every case.

Box 6 Applying the rules

A year or so ago a swimming meet took place at the University of Toronto. Most of the races proceeded as planned. But at the end of one race, there was a challenge to the winner of the race. The appropriate group of officials convened. The deliberations were lengthy and tense. After much argument and poring over the rules, a decision was announced: the winner has been disqualified and the second swimmer was acclaimed the victor. The referee took the unusual course of offering a brief justification of the committee’s decision – ‘the rules were clear (‘‘the winner is the first swimmer to touch the side of the pool with both hands’’) and, if this regrettable outcome is to be avoided in the future, it will be necessary to change the rules.’ The winning swimmer had only one arm.

(Hutchinson, 1988, p. 23)

In this example the rules were applied strictly. It shows that the consistent and impartial application of the rules resulted in the winner being treated unjustly. Thus, applying the principle that people should be treated equally by the law does not guarantee that justice will occur in all cases and may lead to injustice.