‘Everybody is the same in the eyes of the law’. That is a lovely intention, but the relevant question is: Is justice the same for everybody so that the same crime leads to the same outcome?
My contention is that, sadly, the answer to the above question is a firm no. The wealthy and the well-connected are more likely to have a ‘better’ outcome in terms of the sentences they receive (if any at all) for the same crime than ordinary people. And such an outcome is not necessarily the consequence of corruption (although that is always a possibility), but the faults of the legal system itself.
2. Justice is an expensive thing
To obtain justice is an expensive thing. Let me give you just two examples, although there are hundreds of examples like these.
Surrounded by his team of lawyers Bill Crosby just recently has been recently released from jail based on his appeal to Pennsylvania’s highest court (https://abcnews.go.com/US/bill-cosby-released-prison-conviction-vacated/story?id=78582000). The total legal cost of his case is not disclosed, but at least at one time he had seven attorneys on his team(https://abcnews.go.com/US/bill-cosby-fires-lawyers-hires-lawyer/story?id=55912591). In the US, top attorneys can charge up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per case(https://www.trendrr.net/8402/highest-paid-most-successful-lawyers-world-famous-expensive-richest-net-worth-salary/). In Australia, Cardinal Pell appealed to the Highest Court of Australia, where his case has been overturned. His total legal costs are reported to be three million dollars (The Australian July3-4/2021).
This blog is not about the legal merit of the different cases, but it is about the dollar cost of justice. There is no way that an ordinary person could afford the legal bills paid by the wealthy.
3. Justice for the socially connected
There are many scientific articles which support the benefits of social networks in business. It is much harder to provide evidence on how the well-connected may get different legal treatment to the ordinary person.
There is only anecdotal evidence on the benefits of social networks in legal matters. The benefit of social networks could be that, the public prosecutor may drop a case altogether against a well-connected person as it recently happened in Australia(https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/you-re-free-to-go-daughter-of-neurosurgeon-charlie-teo-has-crash-case-withdrawn-20210622-p5834i.html). Alternatively, a judge could hand down a lighter sentence than he/she would otherwise do for the well connected(https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/blog/neville-wrans-daughter-received-lower-sentence-due-to-media-attention/). These types of casual evidences can only be found in gossip magazines and newspapers. Nevertheless, they may have some foundations as media outlets can be sued, although they are rarely sued for such matters.
Again, independent of the legal merits of cases of well-connected people, one can only wonder, if an ordinary person would receive the same treatment as a socially connected one.
4.What is wrong with the legal system?
The obvious answer to the question of ‘what is wrong with the legal system’ is, that it is too expensive. So, what is the solution?
First, in my view, attorneys should be able to charge what the market for their labour is prepared to pay. So, restricting their fees is not the solution. Second, paying prosecutors more to attract the best legal minds is also not a solution, because the wealthy can always pay always. Third, restricting the number of attorneys in any legal case to one or two lawyers would further slow down the legal system and the accused, unless on bail, would be in jail longer. This proposal would also not benefit society. Finally, social networks cannot be eliminated, no matter how objective the prosecutors and the judges try to be. After all, they are also humans with feelings, emotions, family connections and good days and bad days.
5.How to get closer to the ideal ‘everybody is the same in the eye of the law’? The use of artificial intelligence.
As the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and technology is ever increasingly impacting on our lives, it is time to consider the role of AI in criminal cases.
AI would eliminate the financial advantage of the wealthy and the social networking advantage of the well connected. The facts of the matter would be submitted in a templated format and AI would make the decision and determine the appropriate sentence. There is already significant research on how AI could be applied in legal matters. The sooner some AI based approach is adopted in criminal matters the sooner we can get closer to the utopia of ‘everybody is equal in the eyes of the law’.
Justice is not an absolute concept.
Money buys better legal teams which in turn leads to a better outcome for the accused.
Social networks also could lead to a more favourable outcome for the accused.
Artificial intelligence could remove the advantage of the wealthy and well-connected in legal matters.