Whatever Happened to Justice?

by Michael McGinnis

Some books are messengers of thought provoking ideas. Most of those are hard to read. Once in a while a book is published which is worth reading, and which is written so both adults and teens can easily read it. I have recently read a book containing very interesting ideas which I believe are worth having a look at. The book is "Whatever Happened to Justice?" by Richard Maybury.

Maybury proposes that many of our social problems, such as high crime rates, drug use, environmental pollution and poverty, among others, have been made worse by our current legal system. Our current legal system is based largely on political law examples of which will be given later. Maybury says that law for ordinary people, or common law, began at least as early as the end of the Roman Empire. Common law is much better than political law.

Common law starts with the assumption that there is a Higher Authority which establishes the laws of the universe. Many people call this God or perhaps Nature. Just as science is the search for the laws governing matter and energy, common law is the search for the laws that allow people to live without coming into conflict. We should note that the laws just show us how to live more wisely; we can choose to ignore them but then we pay a price. A person can ignore the law of gravity and walk off a cliff, but then he falls to the bottom of the cliff and pays the price for ignoring that law.

When people had to resolve disputes many centuries ago, they looked for areas of agreement among all religions for the laws that men should live by. There are many areas that different religions disagree on, but Maybury believes that the areas of common agreement which are man's best attempt at identifying natural laws of human behaviour can be summarized in 2 laws with only 16 carefully chosen words:

"Do all you have agreed to do."

"Do not encroach on other persons or their property."

What happened when someone broke one of these laws? Over a long time, a series of precedents were established to determine the restitution owed by the law-breaker to his victim. The guiding principle was that the law-breaker was responsible for his actions, and that he was obligated to return his victim's life as far as possible to the condition it was in before the offense happened.

In the case of murder, as with other examples of violations of the two laws given above, a schedule of penalties was developed. For instance, for the murder of an adult male the penalty was the amount of money earned in 17 years by the average worker. The murder of a pregnant woman had a penalty of the amount of money earned in 58 years by the average worker. Usually a murderer would have to work for the victim or his family until the debt was paid. Capital punishment was not common since the life of the criminal was an asset owned by the victim, as long as the criminal remained in debt.

Common law was strong because it rested on the foundation of recognition of a Higher Authority than man, following a higher law which was really a law of nature. The guiding principles were individual responsibility and restitution to victims by the offender for breaking the law. By contrast, political law has no such basis. Political law is law made by the government, whether by a dictator, a group of people or even a majority of the people.

Political law often changes with the mood of the times, so there is constant tinkering with the law to favour whatever interest group has managed to get the government's attention. Very recently, the government of Ontario changed the law to make bullets harder to buy. This is an example of political law; arbitrary and whimsical. It is easier to place the responsibility for armed violence on bullets, as these are unable to complain that they are being treated unfairly.

Many other examples of the effect of political law could be given. Such as the very light sentences from the Los Angeles riots the courts felt that the rioters should be partly excused as they were living in poverty, were "victims of society" and so were not responsible for their actions. Or another, quoted from the book: "a burglar while robbing a California high school, falls through a sky light and wins $260,000 in damages, plus a $1,200 monthly stipend from the local school board."

Maybury believes that society is weakened and threatened by our current legal system. "Whatever Happened to Justice" covers a lot of ground far more than I have indicated here. It may get the mental juices flowing this summer if you have a chance to read it. A copy of "Whatever Happened to Justice" is in the Mayo library.

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