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Procedural justice is a legal concept referring to the fairness of the procedures involved in taking someone to court, hearing a case, and reaching a decision. When evaluating a case or a legal system as a whole to determine if procedural justice is present, people ask whether the procedures are fair and reasonable. Many nations believe in the importance of this concept and enshrine it in the law; the due process clause in the Constitution of the United States, for example, mandates that people must receive “due process of law” when they are in the legal system.
There are several different ways of looking at procedural justice. One issue is that of representation, looking at who is allowed to participate and speak in the courtroom. People generally believe it is important for people to be able to defend themselves, for example, and many nations guarantee the right of defendants to respond to charges, either directly or with the assistance of an attorney. Victims may also have a role, being able to participate in sentencing and other aspects of the case with their own testimony.
Another issue is consistency and impartiality. For procedural justice to be present, the legal system must behave in a consistent manner, and the people in charge of decisions have to be neutral. If judges are biased, this can lead to unfair outcomes. These traits are easy to measure; people can look at the sentences in similar cases, for example, to see if anyone has an unusually tough or light sentence. A judge who offers women more lenient sentences than men for the same crime is not behaving impartially and is creating inconsistencies.
People must also balance the costs. In some cases, the process for obtaining justice would be so lengthy and so expensive that it would not be worth it, given the case and the outcome. In others, the matter is so important that cost is not an object. Procedural justice is served if someone accused of vandalism is allowed a brief bench trial and sentenced to community service. The same trial setting would not be appropriate for a person accused of murder, as the stakes in that case would be much higher. That person would be entitled to a full jury trial, with higher standards of proof to convict.
Many nations strive to create a fair justice system where all people receive equal treatment and are entitled to the same rights. This can be difficult to achieve in practice, due to a variety of factors, ranging from the role of social prejudices in the courtroom to class issues. A person with limited income, for instance, cannot afford the same legal representation available to a person with a great deal of money.