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When is a legal failing, failing to apply the law, an injustice?

Some serious crimes, rape and murder being the most obvious, might well be injustices when not punished, simply becasue justice surely require consistency and many people agree that it is just to punish serious crimes.

It is quite usual to think of certain crimes as more serious than others, and hence as deserving more severe punishment.

Emphasis added. My exmples are meant to illustrate what I am asking, not answer the question. Is there a simple formula for linking legal failings to 'justice'?

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    I would say that every time reason is not followed, it is an injustice.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 11, 2023 at 23:03
  • dwai, you'e not worth it @MichaelK
    – user67675
    Nov 12, 2023 at 13:37
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    sorry about my rudeness, hope it's fine now :) @MichaelK
    – user67675
    Nov 12, 2023 at 16:01
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    All is well, thank you for the resolution. :)
    – MichaelK
    Nov 12, 2023 at 16:18
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    When I get ruffled, my tone gets a whole lot more acerbic. So, no worries, all is well. :) I hope my answer was helpful to you, even if a bit generic.
    – MichaelK
    Nov 12, 2023 at 17:07

3 Answers 3

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The most palpable cases where we feel injustice is when we witness a crime against a specific person or group and nothing is done -- basically a conscious turning of a blind eye to a crime or an inept prosecution of transgressor.

To your point, many people speed and don't get fined - but that is not something we'd say is an injustice.

Not sure if there is a simple answer to this kind of thing but if I try my hand at some rules, I'd say a useful heuristic may be something like this:

(1) There are actual victims or people who have been harmed (vs potential victims)
(2) There is a clear transgressor who knowingly performed an act that caused harm to the people in (1)
(3) There is a law prohibiting such acts or harms

However, even with this, injustice is often in the eye of the beholder. Take the infamous OJ Simpson murder trial - this case split the USA along racial lines and is still controversial to this day. Was it a botched prosecution of an obvious crime, or was it an injust system targeting a successful African American. It was ready both ways.

What I take from this is that enforcement is not as straightforward as we would assume, often involving several levels. What constitutes "legal failing" is often subjective since the law and legal system is defined as the source of truth regarding guilt/innocence. Apart from obvious malpractice, it's hard to pin down when a law was incorrectly applied or failed to be applied, since that determination is only relevant from within the system that failed to act in the first place.

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    yes, malpractice, nailed that thanks
    – user67675
    Nov 12, 2023 at 5:47
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It depends on your definition of "Justice"

Hypothetical scenario: if I knock out your tooth, and you — in response — knock out one of mine mine, has justice been achieved?

In the stone age, the answer would have been "Yes", because of the stone age definition of justice: if you harm someone, you will be made to suffer the same harm, summarized as "an eye for an eye".

This is known as Mirror Punishment and is a form of Retributive Justice, i.e. if you do something wrong, there will be retribution. Note that this is also a form of Proportional Justice.


In modern times, however, the answer is not as clear cut, because these days justice is much less about retribution — though in the eye of the public, retribution is often desired — and more focused on Reconciliation, Reparation, Rehabilitation, and also Prevention and Protection Of The Innocent.

Also note that modern justice is also still very concerned with proportionality.

So, if we look at the goals, and measure...

  • Were the innocent protected?
  • Was crime prevented?
  • Was reconciliation achieved?
  • Was the victim repaired/compensated for their damages?
  • Was the perpetrator successfully rehabilitated and reintroduced into society?
  • Were the consequences proportional to the offense committed?

...and, to a lesser degree...

  • Was there satisfactory retribution?

...and find that one or more of the points above were not achieved, then we have a failure of justice, i.e. an injustice .


Which then brings us to the question: when is there a legal reason for such a failure?

Here we risk failing the "book test", which means that if the answer can fill a whole book, it is too long for Stack Exchange. And since we can — with the sub-questions enumerated above — cover all of modern jurisprudence (the theory of justice) — which is not just a book but a whole university education in and of itself — I will have to do a shortcut by genericising a bit, which is as follows:

Whenever law, law-making, and/or the enforcement of law, is the reason for a failure of any of the above, then that is a legal failing that has led to an injustice.


This then begs the question: is there anything that is not a "legal failing" when justice is not achieved? This I have no answer to, one could argue both yes, and no, depending on how far you are willing to give the legal system power to act on you.

We could — for instance — institute a benign Big Brother society, by simply abolishing a few rights, such as freedom of movement, the right to privacy, and the right to free expression and/or the right to free thought. With these things out of the way, we could achieve many more of the points enumerated above. But I do believe many think that this is not a cost we are willing to pay. Instead, we are more willing to let the legal system partially fail, rather than give up these rights.

With this in mind, we end up with the odd concept of "acceptable failures", i.e. we have to let the justice system fail to — for instance — prosecute, judge and sentence a perpetrator, if we cannot — with high enough certainty — establish their guilt.

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The law is intended to dispense justice, so in that sense, any legal failing would be injustice.

That said, the legal system isn't perfect, it's constructed by imperfect humans, and it may be based on principles or affected by beliefs that aren't all just. But that's something one can write entire books about (and I'm sure many already have).

You'll need to make the case on an individual basis for what is and isn't just (like people tend to do when they propose new laws or changes to laws).

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