A short history of justice by Trevor Plumbly

Most of the problems associated with criminal behaviour can be put down to the need for possession in one form or another.

Them was the good old days

In earlier time, litigation was a fairly simple concept. Bloke A would scoot out, armed with a club, grab the girl of his dreams and drag her back to his cave for a spot of procreative gymnastics. Sounds primitive I know, but that’s how we got here. But men being men, disputes occur. If Bloke A met Bloke B on the same mission, a custody battle ensued; generally speaking, the bloke with the biggest club won the day.

Given the limitations of speech, hard currency and, of course, the absence of lawyers, justice was swift and cheap. This simple, effective method of settling disputes worked fine until someone introduced oratory into the equation, which required you to debate matters with your opponent, before or during punching his ticket.

The middling ages

Themis, Greek/Roman blind goddess of justice

The Greeks and Romans started the rot: they placed a high value on rhetoric which attracted all sorts of odd bods to the law including clerics, philosophers and lawyers. This signalled the end of any clear direction the process might have had. Medieval justice required ritual and grandeur beyond the barbarity of the wooden club. Justice must be seen to be done and beheading was the way to go. Decapitation was a one-size-fits-all method of solving disputes: inheritance claims, criminal liability, divorce proceedings. It did away with any nasty aftertastes like appeals; after all, if your head’s a couple of feet away from the rest of you, you’re not in a position to moan about things.


Trial by jury – twelve people representative of the community

In the 19th Century justice came out of its shell. The simple, “You did it!”, “No I didn’t!”, became public drama and the popular press ensured that the more sensational trials would be re-enacted outside court by blue collar judges, juries and, of course, lawyers. Execution faded as a spectator sport and hanging was deemed tidier than the axe. Sophistication had arrived along with trial by one’s own peers, but sadly the majority of the collective “twelve good men and true”, knew sod all about the vagaries of the law and it was pretty much a toss-up which legal team could bludgeon or entice them to pick sides. Some cases can drag on for years and cost millions, without a satisfactory result, causing me to think that perhaps the wooden club system might have had its merits.

In a sentence

The gap left by the clergy and politicians was quickly filled by the theorists who, to my mind, are a bloody sight more damaging to clarity of thought. The best of them simply believe in the restorative power of forgiveness. I don’t mind that as long as they keep it to themselves. It’s the progressives that worry me, the “It’s not their fault” brigade who seem to believe that criminals aren’t really responsible for their own actions. As things stand in NZ, a drug dealer can receive softer punishment if he’s had a hard upbringing. Christ! The guy’s wholesaling misery to unfortunates and we should worry whether his parents did or didn’t smack his arse on a regular basis?

Progressives also shine when it comes to police conduct: car chases, especially those involving injury, provoke all sorts of theories that excuse the drivers from stopping when ordered to, whilst portraying the police as high speed avengers. The justice system isn’t ageing well; I think the old girl’s been in the ring too long, she’s punch-drunk, but still expected to win every time which she will, of course, by continuing to rewrite her own standards. History hasn’t altered the fabric of justice that much: there’s little difference between Bloke A’s club and a QC’s war chest. There’s lots of Latin phrases used in law, I wonder if there’s one for “The big guy always wins.”

Nil desperandum. T

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