Truth often elusive in pursuit of justice

By John Tripe

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What is truth? We've asked you before. Dare we say it's the trading stock of our business? As we all want justice, we appoint judges and juries, and put faith in the judicial process. But why do they take time to deliberate and consider their verdict? What is a trial, and why do we have different standards of proof; "balance of probability" in civil matters, but in crime it's "proof beyond reasonable doubt".

The answer is all too obvious, and it's all about doubt. Facts are established by witnesses, but even as they believe it's the truth, they may give conflicting evidence of what they saw. They may, however, know and tell only half or even none of the truth; but how do we know which or when? It's for the jury to decide - even if they honestly don't know.

The job of the judge generally is to know the law and direct the jury, even while lawyers argue about law and facts - and why? If there were no doubt about law, we'd hardly need a trial, except for the facts. But that's the problem - there's no certainty. The judge has to decide - and in some cases he/she has to decide both facts and law.

There's another problem with lawyers. It's their job to represent one side and break down the other, and we know what a good lawyer can do.

In criminal cases the prosecutor must present facts fairly, but not be too crafty. Then the police have a job too, and they may be under pressure from "victims" with support of media and public opinion, to "get a conviction". It's sad but may be true that even police occasionally manage the evidence.

So what is justice? It's not quite the same as truth. No one knows. We all must acknowledge human weakness. We who deal with truth professionally must be aware always that there are winners and losers in the business, and we can expect to be right about half the time. If our average is consistently better than half, we should begin to doubt!

So what's the point? Think of people in prison, and the fallibility of justice. We don't need to be specific, but can be sure some of them are innocent - or at least should never have been convicted (and there's another distinction). It's grossly unjust if they are not eligible for parole unless and until they "admit their crime".

John Tripe is principal with the Wanganui legal firm of Jack Riddet Tripe.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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