Trials and Justice

With the United States tying itself into knots following the death of Justice Scalia and the question of whether or not there is a convention against President Barack Obama nominating a replacement to the Supreme Court, we can see how important matters of justice are to real-world civilisations. The same is true of your fictional society; what happens when one of your citizens is arrested for a crime she did not commit?

Let’s take a look at justice and judiciary processes.

Of course, the simplest way to judge innocence or guilt, or to resolve disputes between parties, is by simple adjudicator; one person who hears the evidence and makes a decision – we might use as an example here a king, or a mayor. But the flaw here becomes obvious as the populace expands; so much time would be taken up adjudicating, that other duties would never get done.

In more complex societies, matters of justice are usually carried out by a tribunal of some kind. Whether that takes the familiar form of “judge and jury” is up to you – but it’s worth noting that not all cases, even in the real world, are heard in the same way. In the UK, for instance, some minor cases are heard in a magistrates court, before three magistrates and without a jury, and with limited sentencing powers (small fines, community service, etc.).

What your invented culture considers appropriate for justice to be carried out can tell us a lot about their beliefs and philosophies; a “jury of one’s peers” tells us that they value the moral character of individuals, while a “trial by combat” may tell us that they value strength, and a “trial by ordeal” that they have a sincere belief in the intervention of a higher power.

Example: The factions of the nomadic Tikaten Hordes meet each full moon at the Unfailing Spire. Holy ground. Here they trade, they revel, they choose their mates, and they pass judgement. Those seeking justice will have their case heard before the chieftains of the factions. They hear, they discuss, and they decide. The chieftains’ word is the Law of Men, but the Law of Gods is higher; those who would dispute the Law of Men must remain at the Unfailing Spire, without food or protection until the next full moon. Should they survive, the Gods have looked favourably upon their claim, and it will be upheld.

Here we can see a civilisation where a council of the powerful or wise (depending on how the Tikaten Hordes select their chieftains) make all the decisions of justice. Since at least one of the chieftains is likely to know each of the parties personally, this information is likely to influence their outcome to some extent. However, the influence of the other chieftains, who are unlikely to know either party, should temper any obvious bias there might be.

We also see here a system of appeal; the chieftains’ decisions are not final, and can be disputed by a trial by ordeal. This is a dangerous thing to do, however, the implication being that few survive the wait for the next full moon. Accordingly, we might imagine that the decision to seek the justice of the Gods is one taken only when the decision is one of great importance to the losing claimant.

Still, we might imagine this affords each person a similar level of justice, and each would claim that justice is seen to be done in the sight of both gods and men. But this needn’t be the case in all societies;

Example: The Floating Cities of Venus have augmented their limited ability to travel with extensive neural interfaces and virtual reality landscapes. Much of the leisure, work and governance take place using such technology, and the legal system follows suit. A trial on Venus can draw testimony directly from the virtual world, allowing any simulated event that is not classified to be used as evidence. Lies and misrepresentations are therefore eliminated.

Venus’ system appears to be an equal one. After all, what better evidence could there be than a recording of the events and the thought processes of the people involved?

But look at the phrasing; ‘any simulated event that is not classified‘ is extremely telling of who holds the power here. Whoever gets to decide what is classified, whether that be government officials, the private government contractors or the keepers of the virtual net, also gets to decide what evidence can be used in the trial. Can an ordinary citizen bring a complaint against the powerful, and be assured a fair trial given these circumstances? It seems not.

How does your civilisation resolve disputes and deal with those accused of crimes? Is it fair, or weighted in favour of a particular party? What does this say about the society you have created?

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