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Justice According to Law

That it is on the whole expedient that courts of justice should thus become courts of law, no one can seriously doubt. Yet the elements of evil involved in the transformation are too obvious and serious ever to have escaped recognition. Laws are in theory, as Hooker says, “ the voices of right reason ” , they are in theory the utterances of Justice speaking to men by the mouth of the state, but too often in reality they fall far short of this ideal. Too often they “ turn judgment to wormwood,” and make the administration of justice a reproach. Nor is this true merely of the earlier and ruder stages of legal development. At the present day our law has learnt, in a measure never before attained, to speak the language of sound reason and good sense, but it still retains in no slight degree the vices of its youth , nor is it to be expected that at any time we shall altogether escape from the perennial conflict between law and justice. It is needful, therefore, that the law should plead and prove the ground and justification of its existence.

The chief uses of the law are three in number. The first of these is that it imparts uniformity and certainty to the administration of justice. It is vitally important not only that judicial decisions should be correct, distinguishing accurately between right and wrong, and appointing fitting remedies for injustice, but also that the subjects of the state should be able to know beforehand the decision to which, on any matter, the courts of justice will come. This provision is impossible unless the course of justice is uniform, and the only effectual method of procuring uniformity is the observance of those fixed principles which constitute the law. It would be well, were it possible, for the tribunals of the state to recognise and enforce the rules of absolute justice, but it is better to have defective rules than to have none at all. For we expect from the coercive action of the state, not merely the maintenance of abstract justice, but the establishment within the body politic of some measure of system, order and harmony in the actions and relations of its members. It is often more important that a rule should be definite, certain, known, and permanent, than that it should be ideally just. Sometimes, indeed, the element of order and certainty is the only one which requires consideration, it being entirely indifferent what the rule is, so long as it exists and is adhered to. The rule of the road is the best and most familiar example of this, but there are many other instances in which justice seems dumb, and yet it is needful that a definite rule of some sort should be adopted and maintained.

For this reason we require in great part to exclude judicial discretion by a body of inflexible law. For this reason it is that in no civilised community do the judges and magistrates, to whom is entrusted the duty of maintaining justice, exercise with a free hand the viri boni arbitrium. The more complex our civilisation becomes, the more needful is its regulation by law, and the less practicable the alternative method of judicial procedure. In simple and primitive communities it is doubtless possible, and may even be expedient, that rulers and magistrates should execute judgment in such manner as best commends itself to them. But in the civilisation to which we have now attained, any such attempt to substitute the deliverances of natural reason for predetermined principles of law would lead to chaos. “ Reason,” says Jeremy Taylor, “ is such a box of quicksilver that it abides no where; it dwells in no settled mansion, it is like a dove’s neck, and if we inquire after the law of nature ” (that is to say, the principles of justice) “ by the rules of our reason, we shall be as uncertain as the discourses of the people or the dreams of disturbed fancies. ”

It is to be observed, in the second place, that the necessity of conforming to publicly declared principles protects the administration of justice from the disturbing influence of improper motives on the part of those entrusted with judicial functions. The law is necessarily impartial. It is made for no particular person, and for no individual case, and so admits of no respect of persons, and is deflected from the straight course by no irrelevant considerations peculiar to the special instance. Given a definite rule of law, a departure from it by a hairsbreadth is visible to all men, but within the sphere of individual judgment the differences of honest opinion are so manifold and serious that dishonest opinion can pass in great part unchallenged and undetected. Where the duty of the judicature is to execute justice in accordance with fixed and known principles, the whole force of the public conscience can be brought to the enforcement of that duty and the maintenance of those principles. But when courts of justice are left to do that which is right in their own eyes, this control becomes to a great extent impossible, public opinion being left without that definite guidance which is essential to its force and influence. So much is this so, that the administration of justice according to law is rightly regarded as one of the first principles of political liberty. “ The legislative or supreme authority,” says Locke, “ cannot assume to itself a power to rule by extemporary, arbitrary decrees, but is bound to dispense justice, and to decide the rights of the subject by promulgated, standing laws, and known, authorised judges. ” So, in the words of Cicero, “ We are the slaves of the law that we may be free. ”

It is to its impartiality, far more than to its wisdom (for this latter virtue it too often lacks), that are due the influence and reputation which the law has possessed at all times. Wise or foolish, it is the same for all, and to it, therefore, men have ever been willing to submit their quarrels, knowing, as Hooker says, that “ the law doth speak with all indifferency , that the law hath no side-respect to their persons. ” Hence the authority of a judgment according to law. The reference of international disputes to arbitration, and the loyal submission of nations to awards so made, are possible only in proportion to the development and recognition of a definite body of international law. The authority of the arbitrators is naught, that of the law is already sufficient to maintain in great part the peace of the world. So in the case of the civil law, only so far as justice is transformed into law, and the love of justice into the spirit of law-abidingness, will the influence of the judicature rise to an efficient level, and the purposes of civil government be adequately fulfilled.

Finally, the law serves to protect the administration of justice from the errors of individual judgment. The establishment of the law is the substitution of the opinion and conscience of the community at large for those of the individuals to whom judicial functions are entrusted. The principles of justice are not always clearly legible by the light of nature. The problems offered for judicial solution are often dark and difficult, and there is great need of guidance from that experience and wisdom of the world at large of which the law is the record. The law is not always wise, but on the whole, and in the long run, it is wiser than those who administer it. It expresses the will and reason of the body politic, and claims by that title to overrule the will and reason of judges and magistrates, no less than those of private men “ To seek to be wiser than the laws,” says Aristotle, “ is the very thing which is by good laws forbidden. ”

These, then, are the chief advantages to be derived from the exclusion of individual judgment by fixed principles of law. Nevertheless, these benefits are not obtained save at a heavy cost. The law is without doubt a remedy for greater evils, yet it brings with it evils of its own. Some of them are inherent in its very nature, others are the outcome of tendencies which, however natural, are not beyond the reach of effective control.

The first defect of a legal system is its rigidity. A general principle of law is the product of a process of abstraction. It results from the elimination and disregard of the less material circumstances in the particular cases falling within its scope, and the concentration of attention upon the more essential elements which these cases have in common. We cannot be sure that, in applying a rule so obtained, the elements so disregarded may not be material in the particular instance, and if they are so, and we make no allowance for them, the result is error and injustice. This possibility is fully recognised in departments of practice other than the law. The principles of political economy are obtained by the elimination of every motive save the desire for wealth, but we do not apply them blindfold to individual cases without first taking account of the possibly disturbing influence of the eliminated elements. In law it is otherwise, for here a principle is not a mere guide to the due exercise of a rational discretion, but a substitute for it. It is to be applied without any allowance for special circumstances, and without turning to the right hand or to the left. The result of this inflexibility is that, however carefully and cunningly a legal rule may be framed, there will in all probability be some special instances in which it will work hardship and injustice, and prove a source of error instead of a guide to truth. So infinitely various are the affairs of men, that it is impossible to lay down general principles which will be true and just in every case. If we are to have general rules at all, we must be content to pay this price.

The time-honoured maxim, Summum jus est summa injuria, is an expression of the fact that few legal principles are so founded in truth that they can be pushed to their extremest logical conclusions without leading to injustice. The more general the principle, the greater is that elimination of immaterial elements of which it is the result, and the greater therefore is the chance that, m its rigid application, it may be found false. On the other hand, the more carefully the rule is qualified and limited, and the greater the number of exceptions and distinctions to which it is subject, the greater is the difficulty and uncertainty of its application. In attempting to escape from the evils which flow from the rigidity of the law, we incur those due to its complexity, and we do wisely if we discover the golden mean between the two extremes.

Analogous to the vice of rigidity is that of conservatism. The former is the failure of the law to conform itself to the requirements of special instances and unforeseen classes of cases. The latter is its failure to conform itself to those changes in circumstances and in men's views of truth and justice which are inevitably brought about by the lapse of time. In the absence of law, the administration of justice would automatically adapt itself to the circumstances and opinions of the time, but fettered by rules of law, courts justice do the bidding, not of the present, but of the times past in which those rules were fashioned. That which is true today may become false tomorrow by change of circumstances, and that which is taken today for wisdom may tomorrow be recognised as folly by the advance of knowledge. This being so, some method is requisite whereby the law, which is by nature stationary, may be kept in harmony with the circumstances and opinions of the time. If the law is to be a living organism, and not a mere petrification, it is necessary to adopt and to use with vigilance some effective instrument of legal development, and the quality of any legal system will depend on the efficiency of the means so taken to secure it against a fatal conservatism. Legislation : the substitution of new principles for old by the express declaration of the state; is the instrument approved by all civilised and progressive races, none other having been found comparable to this in point of efficiency. Even this, however, is incapable of completely counteracting the evil of legal conservatism However perfect we may make our legislative machinery, the law will lag behind public opinion, and public opinion behind the truth.

Another vice of the law is formalism. By this is meant the tendency to attribute undue importance to form as opposed to substance, and to exalt the immaterial to the level of the material. It is incumbent on a perfect legal system to exercise a sound judgment as to the relative importance of the matters which come within its cognisance, and a system is infected with formalism in so far as it fails to meet this requirement and raises to the rank of the material and essential that which is in truth unessential and accidental. Whenever the importance of a thing in law is greater than its importance in fact, we have a legal formality. The formalism of ancient law is too notorious to require illustration, but we are scarcely yet in a position to boast ourselves as above reproach in this matter. Much legal reform is requisite if the maxim De minimis non curat lex is to be accounted anything but irony.

The last defect that we shall consider is undue and needless complexity. It is not possible, indeed, for any fully developed body of law to be such that he who runs may read it. Being, as it is, the reflection within courts of justice of the complex facts of civilised existence, a very considerable degree of elaboration is inevitable. Nevertheless the gigantic bulk and bewildering difficulties of our own labyrinthine system are far beyond anything that is called for by the necessities of the case. Partly through the methods of its historical development, and partly through the influence of that love of subtilty which has always been the besetting sin of the legal mind, our law is filled with needless distinctions, which add enormously to its bulk and nothing to its value, while they render a great part of it unintelligible to any but the expert. This tendency to excessive subtilty and elaboration is one that specially affects a system which, like our own, has been largely developed by way of judicial decisions. It is not, however, an unavoidable defect, and the codes which have in modern times been enacted in European countries prove the possibility of reducing the law to a system of moderate size and intelligible simplicity.

From the foregoing considerations as to the advantages and disadvantages which are inherent in the administration of justice according to law, it becomes clear that we must guard against the excessive development of the legal system. If the benefits of law are great, the evils of too much law are not small. Bacon has said, after Aristotle, Optima est lex quae minimum relinquit arbitrio judicis. However true this may be in general, there are many departments of judicial practice to which no such principle is applicable. Much has been done in recent times to prune the law of morbid growths. In many departments judicial discretion has been freed from the bonds of legal principle. Forms of action have been abolished , rules of pleading have been relaxed, the credibility of witnesses has become a matter of fact, instead of as formerly one of law; a discretionary power of punishment has been substituted for the terrible legal uniformity which once disgraced the administration of criminal justice, and the future will see further reforms in the same direction.

We have hitherto taken it for granted that legal principles are necessarily inflexible; that they are essentially peremptory rules excluding judicial discretion so far as they extend; that they must of necessity be followed blindly by courts of justice even against their batter judgment. There seems no reason, however, in the nature of things why the law should not, to a considerable extent, be flexible instead of rigid; should not aid, guide, and inform judicial discretion, instead of excluding it; should not be subject to such exceptions and qualifications as in special circumstances the courts of justice shall deem reasonable or requisite. There is no apparent reason why the law should say to the judicature “ Do this in all cases, whether you consider it reasonable or not,” instead of “ Do this except in those cases in which you consider that there are special reasons for doing otherwise. ” Such flexible principles are not unknown even at the present day, and it seems probable that in the more perfect system of the future much law that is now rigid and peremptory will lapse into the category of the conditional. It will always, indeed, be found needful to maintain great part of it on the higher level, but we have not yet realised to what an extent flexible principles are sufficient to attain all the good purposes of the law, while avoiding much of its attendant evil. It is probable, for instance, that the great bulk of the law of evidence should be of this nature. These rules should for the most part guide judicial discretion, instead of excluding it. In the former capacity, being in general founded on experience and good sense, they would be valuable aids to the discovery of truth; in the latter, they are too often the instruments of error.

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