Sunday, 6 November 2016

Law Courts

Good Government provides Civil Courts.

One cannot read far in the Old Testament without coming to the firm conclusion that justice is something very close to God's heart

Just a few texts to make the point: “I Yaweh love justice: I hate robbery and wrong”. “(God) looked for justice but saw bloodshed: for righteousness but found cries of distress;” “But you have turned justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground” “But his (Samuel's) sons turned aside to dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice” (so God had them killed)

And the Mosaic Law hammers the necessity for justice at great length. Again just a few quotes: “Do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd” “Do not deny justice to the poor in their lawsuits” . “Do not pervert justice or show partiality: do not accept a bribe”. “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.

One of my favourites is this one: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great” I think it speaks to the modern phenomenon of “affirmative action” which boils down to seeking to redress historic wrongs of discrimination against minorities by present day discrimination against the majority. Surely a case of “two wrongs don't make a right”. But here in scripture both wrongs are condemned as perversion of justice!

But to start, as they say, from the beginning. Good government must provide law-courts – both criminal and civil. Many of the above quotes clearly assume some sort of trial scenario – be it the elders gathered at the city gate or the king or an appointed judge. The question is not the composition of the court but its performance. It must deliver justice by God's standards.

The Bible is really clear on the necessity for civil courts, even for “the people of God”. This may come as a surprise for many modern Evangelicals who see Paul's condemnation of members of the fledgling Christian church at Corinth dragging one another before the pagan magistrates as forbidding all civil suits. But his horror can easily be explained in terms both of the shallowness of their conversion experience this behaviour displayed “you are defeated already” and what it made pagans think of The Way (Christianity). Imagine today a small Christian community in a Muslim land – would you think of taking your disputes to the local Sharia court? (This may be to harsh a comparison since Paul was well served by pagan magistrates such as Gallio, and Paup later said “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defence ...”

Besides in the West we are still nominally Christian and our legal systems are founded on Judeo-Christian principles. They may badly need reforming. Lawyers may have subverted ideals of justice to become mere mercenaries – just without guns! But for all that in my experience, the 'secular' law courts have much higher ideals of justice than church tribunals and the like.

But on the necessity for civil courts Deuteronomy 25 commands the ancient Israelites: “When people have a dispute they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.

With the astronomical cost of litigation these days, in general people would be better served listening to Jesus words (although I think he actually meant we should make peace with God before judgement day!) “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court, otherwise...”

However since we are talking about good government, the necessity remains for provision of civil courts to settle disputes impartially. In some places there are state tribunals where lawyers are not required and there are no “costs orders” against the losing side, which in the matters the tribunals deal with makes access viable for ordinary people.

If we look at countries like the United States, and to a slightly lesser extent Australia in the light of the verses above a reformation of the legal culture is obviously desirable. Of course if we look at many other countries they are, at least in the short term beyond redemption. A newspaper columnist here recently wrote “There is in China nothing we would recognise as the rule of law”.

As societies … We have convinced ourselves that every misadventure has to be someone else's fault: and we want to sue them. As nations we need both to learn to take responsibility for our own bad choices, and to accept that life is not fair – accidents happen.

As lawyers … we need to be … well, miraculously changed, which probably requires a deep religious conversion experience – but maybe a few can change the culture and hence the many!

1. Less litigious. The problem here is oversupply of practitioners: so less litigation = less money. 
One lawyer related to me that he told all his clients who wanted to sue someone:
“It's like this if you go to court: if you win – you lose and if you lose you are up the creek!” (“up the creek without a paddle” may be an Australian expression, but the meaning is clear.).

Not all are like that. Here there have been a spate of class actions instigated by big law firms that years after multi-million dollar settlements have given big bonuses to the partners but nothing yet to the clients. In one case there was a big settlement and the law firm said it had all been used up in its and the financier's fees!

2. See themselves as servants of the court (or “justice”) not just of their clients. That is supposed to have been the ethos in British derived jurisdictions. Now the vibe seems to be “only your client's case matters: do whatever it takes to win.”

There is probably a great deal more required in tort reform, but as in every aspect of society, it needs people who are experts in that field who have also had their consciences sharpened by a knowledge of the character of God to laboriously work out the changes.

NEXT TIME : Criminal Justice

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