Delivering justice in film


OK, so this article dates back 15 years or so, but Steve Greenfield and Guy Osborn analysed popular representations of justice in film and some of their points remain interesting (and could be applied to more recent films and literature). They wrote:

The courtroom has long been used as a vehicle for drama. It is an arena in which dramatic tension can easily be built, and with the added ease of constructing grand soliloquy and speech. This trend is echoed in film portrayals and advocacy offers the chance for an actor to display great oratory. Historically, the classic law film has revolved around a formal and serious courtroom drama with clear identification of the search for justice. Prime examples of the genre include Young Mr Lincoln ,To Kill A Mocking Bird, Inherit the Wind, and through to more contemporary examples such as Suspect, The Verdict and Philadelphia. In addition, films such as Brothers in Law and My Cousin Vinny have ploughed the comedic quality of lawyers and legal process. The exploration of law has further moved towards the ethics of lawyers in films such as Devil’s Advocate, and the internal workings of the law practice; The Firm. In previous work we have also identified certain common characteristics of the main participants which have spanned a range of films over a period of time. Interestingly judges have tended to have a rather limited role within legal films with the major roles occupied by the lawyers, although Let Him Have It and And Justice For All provide examples of judges occupying a more central role.” (p.36)

“In a contemporary sense, the most obvious examples of external (to the courtroom) justice are those films that deal with the concept of street justice – sidewalk law enforcement. There is an obvious link to the western with the latter-day sheriff being represented by the homicide detective. The issue is not to enforce the rule book of arrest but to ensure that perpetrators pay for their crimes even if this includes an element of summary ‘smoking gun’ justice. The key is the perceived guilt and unworthiness of the offender who may escape formal justice, in the courtroom, through evidential problems or technicalities.” (p.37)

“Non-police legal vigilantes are not new to film, The Star Chamber shows how a disillusioned judge played by Michael Douglas is invited to join a clandestine group of judges who dispense their own brand of justice in ‘messy’ cases. Their method of remedying deficiencies in the legal system is to employ hitmen to dispense ‘real’ justice. The theme of disillusionment and helplessness in the face of an inert legal system is carried on in Criminal Law where Gary Oldman turns from lawyer to vigilante to pursue a wealthy client who he has been acquitted but who Oldman later discovers to be guilty. Apart from extra legal and police vigilantism, the closest we get to civilian direct action, given the antipathy towards mob justice, are the vigilante movies which portray the (usually lone and sometimes ex-police officer) wronged individual who decides that it is payback time in response to a personal incident, e.g. Deathwish. What then of such vigilantism in the post modern surveillance society of the future?” (p.39)

“Perhaps more than any other institution, the courtroom has been put into crisis by postmodern conditions. Politicians and preachers have always known that the truths that matter are those which can be made to work in specific conditions, educators have always known that their curriculum includes and excludes according to the balance of power that can be achieved in the conditions of its writing, but courts, whose immediate effects are emphatically real (imprisonment or freedom, uprisings or stability) are premised upon the achievability of an objective truth and the effectiveness of rationality, as a human universal, as a means of achieving it. When both truth and reasoning are contingent rather than objective, the legal system experiences crisis. Tabloid television and the Rodney King video was surely the nadir of tabloidism, is part of that crisis, part symptom, part cause, partly a move toward coping with it, partly a move toward continuing it, but inescapably part of it.” (pp.43-44)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Steve Greenfield and Guy Osborn (1999) Film, law and the delivery of justice: The case of Judge Dredd and the disappearing courtroom. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 6(2) 35-45


Vigilante justice and the legal culture of arrest on suspicion


I’m interested in the concept of vigilante justice. It seems to me that vigilante justice of a sort is reasonably common in young adult fiction and urban fantasy. Anyway, I read an interesting opinion piece on the topic; Meena Radhakrishna considered several incidents in India represented as vigilante justice by the press, even though in each case those treated to this form of ‘justice’ all proved innocent of the supposed crime.

Radhakrishna writes: “Recent incidents of lynching in different parts of the country have to be viewed in the context of the law itself allowing the arrest of innocent people on mere suspicion, especially denotified and nomadic people.” (p.16)

“, various sociological explanations have been given for occurrence and recurrence of such incidents. The Bihar lynchings in September 2007, especially, aroused a lot of comment. Horrified national and international reactions largely included denouncement of the inefficient and callous law and order machinery in the concerned state (mainly the police), and the failure of the criminal justice system. This analysis reasoned that a public fed up with delays in dispensation of justice decided to take the law into its own hands and “settle scores with the miscreants”. The solutions to this state of affairs were then seen to be, predictably, gearing up of the police, speedier trials and more self-restraint on the part of the public, however provoked.” (p.16)

However, Radhakrishna explains: “There are some commonalities which will bear pointing out emphatically. Firstly, in all the five cases, the communities suspected of theft (in the case of pardhis, of rape and murder), were nomadic/denotified communities. Secondly, in all the cases it is mere suspicion of crime, not the proof of crime which seemed to justify the public killings or other forms of punishment like rape or burning down of a whole village. Thirdly, in all the cases, the mob was not made up of unknown, nameless ‘citizens’ or a faceless ‘crowd’ as implied in the press, but was constituted of identifiable people. …Fourthly, the law and order keepers in all the …cases [described in this article] were actually present or were informed of the incident well in advance and they did nothing to stop the beatings in time to save the lives of those who were caught by the mobs. …” (pp.16-17)

There are no issues of justice to be settled here since we are talking of crimes here which the accused did not commit. In other words, innocent people have been caught and handled recklessly and in a most barbaric manner. How has any “justice”, mob, or instant, or vigilante, been dispensed?
A point to be emphasised here is that the Indian law itself allows apprehending of innocent people under mere suspicion, and denotified and nomadic people are regularly rounded up by the police under the mob was not made up of unknown, nameless “citizens” or a faceless “crowd” caste members of the concerned region. certain preventive sections of the Indian Penal Code (ipc). This gross injustice is something the rest of the civil society is witness to without questioning, encouraging a state of affairs where suspicion will continue to substitute for hard evidence for vulnerable groups. However, this daily injustice on these communities by the police machinery is not the reason for such group violence. It merely helps in justifying it for its perpetrators in the likes of cases cited above.” (p.17)

Thought-provoking stuff!!! This same culture of suspicion standing in for hard evidence is something children face, too, at least in New Zealand and other English-speaking countries I’ve been to. How wide-spread is such a culture?

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Meena Radhakrishna (2008) Crime of Vigilante Justice Economic and Political Weekly 43 (2) Jan. 12-18, pp.16-18