Wednesday 3 October 2012

Justice for All

I've been reading a book on the Canadian justice system called Getting Away With Murder.  As you may guess, the author is not entirely happy with the present system.

But mostly, he believes people would be less unhappy with the current system if we understood why it works the way it does.  His argument boils down to: we do it this way to protect innocent people who wander into legal crosshairs by accident or ill luck. 

This wasn't news to me.

I don't think it's news to most of us.  Recognizing that the police and courts have the potential to become corrupt tyrants, the law seeks to limit their ability to do damage.  Offering anyone unlimited and unaccountable power just sets up a big want-ad for bullies.  (For the record, I don't think the vast majority of today's cops and judges would qualify as bullies.  I think most of them genuinely want to do what is best for society and the law.)

The author points out lots of examples of people who literally got away with murder under the current system in order to protect the rights and freedoms of the public.  He thinks its sad that the public gets so upset about this and wrote the book to explain it to us.

To be fair, he acknowledges there are some real flaws in the system which need to be addressed.  But thus far he has missed a very crucial point.

The law is meant to reflect the values of the society it protects.  When we believed in segregation, it supported that but when we changed our minds, it changed too.  If the majority of people believe the system has become too complex and that the rules are too unfairly weighted towards the accused, then that needs to be addressed by laws.

Of course, part of the problem seems to be an ongoing contest and disagreement between police, lawyers and judges about how to handle the situation.  The complexity makes it easy to distort precedent.

I don't think the justice system should stand apart from society.  It does have an obligation to protect the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority but the rights of the public also need to be protected.  If the problem is that the law in question is unclear and prone to too many interpretations then that needs to be fixed at the source.  Too much speciality and complexity makes the law self-referential and then it loses touch with the society it is meant to represent.

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