Justice : words

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The Independent Online
THE soldier convicted of murder while on patrol in Northern Ireland has pleaded for justice, and many MPs have echoed his plea. Meanwhile Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, has proposed measures to curb lawyers who waffle interminably while "ev eryone else in the queue has to wait longer for justice"; the Law Society has concurred, "provided justice is not sacrificed". The two stories suggest some confusion about what justice is.

Lord Taylor was talking about the process of the law, but Private Clegg, and presumably the Law Society too, was thinking of something above that process. Aristotle would have known what he meant. He defined epiekeia as a superior justice which looked beyond the letter of the law to the ethical issues involved. English law doesn't call this justice, though; it calls it equity.

As Lord Denning put it, "If the law should be in danger of doing injustice, then equity should be called in to remedy it" (the usual remedy being recourse to the High Court). Equity was classically defined by the Victorian jurist Sir Henry Maine as "any body of rules existing by the side of the original civil law, founded on distinct (ie, different) principles" and claiming to supersede that law when necessary - when, for example, it is plain that the existing law has been overtaken by public opinion. But public opinion doesn't call this equity: it calls it justice.

The proper name for the Law Courts, that Gothic pile in the Strand, is the Royal Courts of Justice. In the popular view of the word this is a misnomer, indicating an aspiration rather than a fact - much as Houses of Correction were so called in the hope that vagabonds would be improved by menial tasks, though there was no certainty that the correction would take place. A justice is also a person, and the name implies that such persons do indeed, as the Prayer Book asks, "duly and indifferently minister justice". But not all ambassadors are excellent, nor all archbishops graceful.