What does "Impartiality" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In law, impartiality is the ability to weigh the facts of a case objectively and render a fair judgment without bias or prejudice. Many legal systems consider impartiality to be a critical tenet of the legal system, particularly in the courts, where judges and juries can decide life and death matters. Several mechanisms are available to enforce impartiality and ensure that everyone who encounters the legal system receives fair and appropriate treatment.

A statue of Lady Justice serves as a reminder for the need for impartiality in the legal system.
A statue of Lady Justice serves as a reminder for the need for impartiality in the legal system.

One of the most enduring symbols of the legal profession is the representation of Lady Justice, a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales. The scales symbolize her ability to weigh the evidence in a case objectively, using clear and understandable measures, while the blindfold indicates her inability to exercise prejudice or bias in a case. Representations of this iconic figure can be seen in many courthouses and on many legal seals, a reminder of the need for impartiality in the legal system.

Lady Justice sits atop the Old Bailey courthouse in London.
Lady Justice sits atop the Old Bailey courthouse in London.

Impartial judgment requires setting aside personal beliefs, biases, prejudices, and experiences to focus on the facts of a case at hand. This is of particular concern when a case involves members of minority populations. A white judge should be able to consider a case concerning a Latino offender fairly, for example, while a heterosexual judge can preside over a case involving gay rights issues. Without impartiality, minorities could have trouble accessing the legal system and receiving fair treatment under the law.

One mechanism for impartiality is the use of judicial recusal, where a judge steps down or is asked to step down from a case she cannot fairly hear. Recusal allows the legal system to address cases that would be clearly unfair, like a judge hearing a case involving his neighbor. Courts also monitor the performance of judges to look for patterns in their judgments like evidence of favoritism for particular people or kinds of cases. The court may choose to remove the judge from those cases in the future, or to relieve a judge of duty if the problems with impartiality appear insurmountable.

One of the grounds attorneys can use to challenge a case on appeal is a claim that impartiality was not present at the original hearing. The attorney may point to the judge's record or to statements made by the judge in court or in front of the media to suggest that the defendant may not have received a fair trial. The higher court will weigh the matter and determine if the claim is correct and the defendant needs a new trial.

Judges must be impartial during a trial or face recusal.
Judges must be impartial during a trial or face recusal.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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