I mean there is no justice. The rich win; the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time we become dead, a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims — and we become victims. We become weak; we doubt ourselves; we doubt our beliefs; we doubt our institutions; and we doubt the law.
But today you are the law. You are the law, not some book, not the lawyers, not a marble statue, or the trappings of the court. See, those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are, in fact, a prayer, I mean a fervent and a frightened prayer.
In my religion, they say, “Act as if you had faith; faith will be given to you.”
If we are to have faith in justice we need only to believe in ourselves and act with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.
– The Verdict (1982).
I don’t study law because I get excited about the nuanced meaning of words. I don’t do it for the thrill of saying “article forty point three point one forward slash two” and I don’t do it because I enjoy remembering latin phrases like volenti non fit injuria or audi alteram partem. All of these things are undoubtedly attractions but there is something more to law than these niche delights.
There is also Justice. Not a justice that appeals to a sectional interest but a justice whose chamber is the conscience.
Someone told me recently that she disliked doing law in College. She disliked it so much that she wanted to leave it. She saw the law as a source of harm and wrong.
While it is easy to decry the many instances of injustice it is even easier to grow disheartened and apathetic through these discoveries.
In law principles are often traded for expedient policy or patent prejudice . The law is replete with many wrongs, inconsistencies and incoherent assertions:-
David Norris’ unsuccessful challenge to statutes criminalising consensual sodomy that failed on grounds that were little more than homophobic nonsense. The denial of rights to unmarried fathers on the basis that their children were the products of either an “act of rape” or “casual commerce”.
People’s ordeals are shamelessly woven into an impersonal fabric of legal thought. The lives, the facts of the case and the final outcome are not overly important and are largely ignored by the student of law.
This is, apparently, the heartless world of the devil’s advocate and the ambulance chaser. It is supposedly devoid of morals and full of avaricious wigged men in league against the lay person.
However, as Robert F. Kennedy said, “[t]he future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the great enterprises and ideals[…]”.
Injustice should be a call to metaphorical arms.(particular emphasis on the word metaphorical – I am not a man of violence). Injustice should get one flared up and indignant. There can be change. There is sometimes a glimmer of hope through the obfuscating clouds of injustice.
There are instances, rare though they may be, where an act of great courage and vision occurs. These instances must be recognised in spite of the culture of cynicism. This culture cannot be allowed to excuse apathy. Wrong or adversity is reason to double your efforts not to give up.
If law were an unruly child then I, along with other idealists, am its parent. I can see the potential in his or her hideous drawings attached to the fridge in the kitchen of society.
There was a time when the Oireachtas was unwilling to pass legislation permitting the use of contraceptives . So unpopular was Mary Robinson’s campaign among fellow politicians that when she introduced the first bill proposing to liberalise the law on contraception into the senate, no other member would agree to ‘second’ the initiative. It could not even be discussed.
Outdated social mores were allowed to prevent people from using contraceptives. This was one of those great acts of courage and vision .The court was unwilling to tolerate such a spectacle of governmental oppression of the individual anymore. The court decided to recognise a right to privacy not enumerated in the Constitution and from then on families were allowed to use contraception. In a landmark decision the court bravely decided that it was going to stand up for the individual.
The court decided to do what was right. There comes a time when you have to see that moral dilemmas are not confined to Hollywood films. Sometimes the court has to stick it to Oireachtas. Protecting individuals and their rights is sometimes too important to be left solely to the horse trading world of politics in a law making assembly.
Democracy is not just about crude majoritarianism. As Jack Balkin says, it is about “more than just a matter of letting majorities have their way, or, more correct, it is more than a matter of letting elites elected by majorities have their way. It is also a theory about the proper organization of society and the proper mode of social relations. Democracy is premised on the establishment and preservation of a certain type of culture, a democratic culture.”
The power of an eloquent dissent or the questioning of an outdated custom – Justice, Courage and Vision -these are powerful notions that are not easy to dismiss. It scares a cynic to think that these things might exist and that they may be worth fighting for. Justice may not always be apparent but it does exist. That precious rare gem.
Even in the face of a world full of littleness, corruption and cynicism, sometimes the courts are actually willing to “second -guess” the legislature. Sometimes the court is unwilling to let the Constitution be treated as mere headlines to the Oireachtas. Great things do happen. Great things worth toiling for.
Law students may have relatively few hours of lectures a week, feel the need to use big words (cognisable, incumbent, syllogism, apposite and axiomatic) and gesticulate in wild excitement when explaining the merits of a Holmes or Brandeis dissent. We have our foibles, but to make broad generalisations about the entire realm of law is to carry on the very same ignorance that we wish to condemn in the law. Law is representative of people generally. There are those who wish to do good, there are those who do bad and there are those who are indifferent.
It may be that things are fated to always be the same horribly cruel and unjust world but that is not the world I am willing to settle for. If I don’t find the Justice I seek when I go to practise at the bar then I must be the change I wish to see in the world . There is still room for the heroism and conviction of a Sidney Lumet film like The Verdict, Serpico or 12 Angry men.
The beauty of a film such as the Verdict is that it brings great dramatic tension to bear on the activities of a lawyer who, in the first instance, is simply trying to earn a living. At the start of the film he is minded to take the easy route in a health compensation case. But as he connects with the deeper morality of the issues involved he changes his tack and argues the case in court at great personal risk.
It’s easy to imagine that such dramatic moments are confined to Hollywood films but I feel that there’s a need for us to think in dramatic terms about the law and its potential for positive change in society.
Robert F Kennedy said that “[i]t is when expectation replaces submission, when despair is touched with the awareness of possibility, that the forces of human desire and the passion for justice are unloosed.”