The Germ of Justice
36 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2010 Last revised: 28 Sep 2020
Date Written: September 4, 2020
This paper addresses the perennial question of the relationship between law and justice. HLA Hart argued that ‘we have, in the bare notion of applying a general rule of law, the germ, at least, of justice.’ If true, this establishes a necessary connection between law and morality. hat is no objection, for the so-called ‘separability thesis’ is anyway false. But the ‘germ-of-justice’ thesis is also false. Justice is a matter of the correct allocation of benefits and burdens among people.
Contrary to what Hart and others think, there is not necessarily any injustice in failing to apply a valid legal rule, not even an ‘administrative’ injustice. It is readily conceded that ‘formal justice’ is not enough in law, that we also need ‘substantive justice.’ This too is a mistake. Formal justice is not insufficient; it is incoherent - all justice is substantive. Might constant rule-application do justice by promoting impartiality? Not necessarily. It depends on the content of the rules and on the nature of the of the adjudicator’s prejudices. There is nonetheless a weak connection between law and justice. Every legal system has courts whose job it is to aim at justice: they must decide not only whether plaintiff deserves a remedy, or whether the prosecution is entitled to a conviction, but also whether these should be ordered in the face of a claim to the contrary. Courts have an allocative job to do. This does not show that they must achieve justice, or even a minimum of justice. Nor does it show that justice is the first virtue of legal institutions. The connection between law and justice is real, but modest. Justice is a necessary aim of a necessary legal institution.
Keywords: Justice, Formal Justice, Administrative Justice, Legal Positivism, HLA Hart, Hans Kelsen, John Gardner, Rules, Impartiality
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