I am a lawyer because God loves justice

David McIlroy

David McIlroy

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The Hebrew Scriptures insist that God’s commitment to justice is as fundamental to His character as is God’s holiness, love and faithfulness. Psalm 9:7-9 declares: “The Lord abides forever; He has established His throne for judgment, and He will judge the world in righteousness; He will execute judgment for the peoples with equity. The Lord also will be a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” (NASB).

The Hebrew word for judgment is mishpat and the Hebrew word translated as righteousness in many English translations is tsedeq. Both words describe actions that are done rightly. A mishpat is an institutional decision made with integrity. Tsedeq actions are personal actions which establish, restore or perform right relationships between people. The two words are often brought together in the Hebrew Scriptures, as in Amos chapter 5 verse 24 which urges: “Let justice (mishpat) roll out like waters, and righteousness (tsedeq) like an ever-flowing stream.”

The Bible’s message is clear: justice is something which must be done, and the doing of justice involves both institutional fairness and interpersonal righteousness.

Institutional Fairness

Legal systems do injustice when the laws are unfair. But even when the laws are fair, legal systems do injustice if the laws are not enforced fairly. The idea that the laws should be applied even-handedly, which is a key part of the rule of law, is a big theme in the Hebrew Scriptures.

  • Bribery and corruption are condemned (1 Samuel 8:3; Micah 3:8-12).
  • There are repeated warnings about using honest weights and measures (Leviticus 19:36, Deuteronomy 25:13-15; Proverbs 11:1, Proverbs 16:11, Proverbs 20:10) which apply by analogy to the scales of justice.
  • The need for procedural fairness is recognised (Deuteronomy 19:15-19).
  • Judges are urged to pay special attention to the cases of the poor, the weak, and the disadvantaged (Exodus 23:6; Proverbs 31:8-9). This is not because the Bible has rose-tinted spectacles about the virtuous poor but because it recognises that the rich and well-educated have the power, the money and the eloquence to be able to present their cases well. Listening carefully to the claims of the poor, the weak and the disadvantaged is what is required to judge fairly, without showing partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great (Leviticus 19:15).

It is no small thing to work towards or within a system in which judges judge fairly, treating litigants even-handedly, applying the laws predictably and doing their best to reach the right decisions according to the law. Of course, no legal system is perfect and there are cases in which the laws themselves are unjust, but the reliable enforcement of law is a great blessing to a nation.

Data from the World Bank Institute which shows that an improvement of one standard deviation in the rule of law produces a three-fold increase in incomes and a two-thirds reduction in infant mortality. That is the gap between respectively Somalia and Cote d’Ivoire, Cote d’Ivoire and El Salvador, El Salvador and Italy, and Italy and the United Kingdom.

Christian lawyers should be committed to working for the rule of law, both in our own countries and in the many places around the world where the legacies of communism, dictatorship and colonialism, have left the poor in a state of de facto lawlessness (see further G.A. Haugen and V. Boutros, The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty requires the End of Violence (OUP 2014)).

Interpersonal Righteousness

Although institutional integrity is highly desirable, it depends on and needs to be augmented by interpersonal righteousness. Reliable institutions alone are not enough; our calling is to act rightly in both our professional and our personal relationships.

As lawyers we should be asking ourselves: what does it mean for me to act rightly towards this client? As professionals, we are under a commitment to act in the best interests of our clients. We need to keep that goal in mind, when faced with competing pressures to achieve billing targets or to take on too much work. We need also to think about what is truly in our client’s best interests – is the vindication of having their day in court or holding out for an improved settlement really better than an early resolution which enables them to get on with their lives?

We also need to recognise that our clients are not God. Relating rightly to our client does not mean simply doing whatever our client asks, and it does not mean making ourselves available to our clients without any boundaries to protect our personal life and our other commitments.

As Christian lawyers, acting rightly towards our client is not merely a matter of treating them fairly. We are called by Christ to love our clients as ourselves, to treat them as Christ has treated us, and as we ourselves would want to be treated. That also applies in our personal relationships, in our relations with our work colleagues, and even with our opponents.

George MacDonald, who was one of C.S. Lewis’s great inspirations, wrote this:

“Man is not made for justice from his fellow, but for love, which is greater than justice, and by including supersedes justice. Mere justice is an impossibility, a fiction of analysis … Justice to be justice must be much more than justice.  Love is the law of our condition, without which we can no more render justice than a man can keep a straight line, walking in the dark.”

We see this in Jesus, who the Apostles proclaimed to be justice in person, the Holy and Just One (Acts 3:14, 7:52). Jesus not only taught us what true justice looks like, He demonstrated the love through which right relationships with God and with one another are possible. Thankfully, He gave the Holy Spirit to guide us as we work out what that means in practice.

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