Justice and fairness

Justice and fairness

Fundamental principles

Everyone should have equal access to justice, and be treated equally by the justice system regardless of their background or characteristics. For example, no one should be denied access to legal advice or representation because they cannot afford to pay for it.

Everyone should have an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives. This means that the justice system should aim to reintegrate offenders into society.

The justice system should not aim to achieve equal outcomes for everyone, since people should be acquitted or convicted according to their innocence or guilt, and sentenced according to the nature and severity of their crimes. Unequal outcomes are acceptable as long as they have not arisen as a result of inequality of access to justice or unequal treatment (i.e. a violation of procedural fairness). However, the state has a role to play in intervening alongside other actors to tackle the structural causes of crime and imprisonment, which include poverty and deprivation, and which exacerbate differential outcomes in terms of the extent to which different groups in society are convicted of crimes and punished for them.


The justice system has to be fair in order to be credible; and a fair society must have a fair justice system, both in terms of equal access to justice and equal treatment by it. To rebuild trust, people must believe that justice is fair and equally applied to all. A fair justice system should punish offenders, but should also rehabilitate them into society. And a fair society should look beyond the confines of the justice system to tackle the systemic issues that lead to higher rates of crime.

Fairness means more than ensuring just outcomes and upholding due legal process. Ensuring procedural fairness means that decisions that are made need to feel fair to people who come into contact with the justice system (such as people coming to court). How a defendant (or witness or victim) is treated has a profound effect on their perception of the process and their ongoing likelihood of complying with court orders and the law generally.

Access to justice

Providing better and earlier access to justice helps to prevent all sorts of other social problems (such as poor housing and injustices at work) that lead to negative social outcomes (such as poor health, poverty and crime). A 'systems thinking' perspective and approach is needed whereby the causes of crime are considered and tackled alongside the causes of other related social problems.

Fair process

Transactional injustices (in which people are treated inconsistently by the criminal justice system, as described above) need to be tackled as a priority, to ensure that the justice system is fair.

Victims deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and their co-operation and trust is necessary if the system is to function effectively. Victims are often not mainly concerned about punishment of the offender; in most cases their priorities are to feel safe and to be reassured that the crime won’t happen again to them (or to someone else).