The concept of justice has three facets — interpersonal adjudication, law based on fault and an emphasis on procedures.
This aspect of the concept of justice is based upon the rights and duties of the individual person. The liberal concept of justice is an interpersonal one — resolution of conflicts between individuals. Individuals can suffer or perpetrate wrong. Individuals can be punished, protected and granted restitution. Justice is an interpersonal thing. It consists in upholding that which is right and due as between persons. Social justice which involves society and groups is a concept which is directly antagonistic to the liberal idea. It is a concept which is nebulous and non-achievable. Its proponents increase state power to effect it, with counterproductive results.
Even between persons, absolute justice is frequently unattainable. The best result which is practically and logically possible is not necessarily the perfect result. For example, in motor accident cases where one person suffers brain damage due to the negligence of a drunken driver, it is practically impossible to grant full restitution to the injured person. He can be compensated for medical expenses. He can be awarded a sum sufficient to improve his situation. He cannot be restored to his pre-accident condition. His brain damage cannot be repaired. It can only be ameliorated. It is not easy to determine a just punishment for the drunken drivers.
In other cases, perfect justice is logically (rather than physically) impossible. Such cases arise in situations where there are legitimate interests on both sides but the interests are in conflict. Only one can prevail. Someone has to lose. Justice requires that the better interest should prevail but that does not mean that there is no merit in the inferior interest. The law of adverse possession provides an illustration where the conflict is between an owner who has abandoned his land and another, professing to be the owner, sells it to a person who takes possession of it and improves it. There is merit (and possibly demerit) on both sides. The best that can be done is to develop rules to help ascertain which side has the better right.
Between persons, justice consists in upholding right behaviour and the courts can adjudicate between persons. Resort to the courts is only considered when a problem (a conflict) exists. The role of the judicial process is, therefore, the resolution of conflicts. Perfect justice cannot be dispensed by the state. The role of the courts is to deal with injustice once it has already occurred.
The traditional emphasis upon adjudication and non-recognition of so-called social welfare rights is evident in the protection which the law traditionally afforded to private property. The idea of redistribution of wealth is completely alien to the common law. A rich man cannot be sued by a poor man merely for being rich. Taxation was prohibited to the executive government, being confined rather to the representatives of the nation in Parliament, who were expected to be jealous defenders of their individual liberty and property.
Inter-personal adjudication is practical and realistic. By its very nature it deals with the real problems which arise between individuals, instead of those problems which arise solely in the minds of ideologues.
Law based on standards and fault
The second facet of the liberal concept of justice is that a person should not be disadvantaged or punished except for fault (intentional, reckless or negligent wrong doing, strict liability applying in exceptional circumstances). The idea of fault is the golden thread that runs through the fabric of the legal order. The Magna Carta contains one of its early manifestations. But the whole of the common law relating to crimes, civil obligations and property rights is characterised by the notion that fault underlies punishment or deprivation. A system of sanctions based on fault presupposes known and pre-existing standards of conduct which bind the community.
The Australian industrial relations system is fundamentally structured on notions of distributive justice and undefined policy. It enables tribunals to vitiate contracts, to penalise certain classes and to reward others on the basis of unpredictable considerations, although in recent times employers have become their predictable victims. Consumer protection laws similarly disregard contractual rights and obligations in compensating losses incurred by consumers. In the field of family law, fault has been all but rendered irrelevant in the annulment of marriages, grant of custody, award of maintenance and the settlement of property. The examples can be multiplied.
The idea of commutative justice which has characterised the laws and customs of most civilised societies is now being progressively replaced by distributive justice. Commutative justice aims at correcting the violation of pre-existing rights. It seeks to give back to one what has been taken away from him or to give him adequate compensation in lieu of it. Distributive justice on the other hand aims at distributing wealth according to egalitarian schemes. In practice, distributive justice results in the creation of new rights and liabilities in substitution for those traditionally enjoyed or suffered under the law. These rights are created in accordance with the ideologies, prejudices, or subjective opinions of individual bureaucrats or members of tribunals who make decisions. Powerful pressure and interest groups influence those making the decisions. The law is particularised and rendered uncertain, thus undermining the foundations of justice and liberty.
The third feature of the liberal concept of justice is the emphasis on procedures. The liberal does not believe in the possibility of achieving equality, democracy, justice, the public good and other ideals through legislative and prescriptive action. Such a task is too complex for the human imagination, conception and execution. An emphasis on procedure is one of the foundations of the rule of law. Procedures provide for limitations on power. Procedures provide that before judicial, legislative or executive decisions are taken, a series of checks and balances are in place to mitigate against the possibility that the decisions will not be hasty, ill-conceived or based on corruption, passion, ideology or eccentricity.
The key institutional and procedural characteristics of a liberal legal order include rights which ensure that a person is not disadvantaged except according to rules of procedure and evidence established by law, which ensure a fair trial. These institutional safeguards give protection to the cluster of personal liberties associated with the criminal process, such as the right not to be imprisoned or held without trial, the right to be informed of charges and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The rules of procedure, evidence and natural justice also protect individuals from arbitrary governmental action and illegal deprivation of private rights. They are essential to the protection of individual rights of personal freedom and private property.