Law Life: Justice must be relative to be fair

By Craig Napier
The Daily Record Newswire

All things great and small deserve our attention.

I realize some of the more powerful among us may have lost sight of how rewarding it is to help someone with a minor legal problem.

What we as lawyers view as a minor legal problem is viewed quite differently by laymen.

Someone untrained or ignorant of the ins and outs of the legal system is powerless to fight even the most minor of legal issues. When a person can’t even step into the ring to fight as an equal, the problem is huge to them.

My dad always told me, “It is all relative.”

Usually he would say this when I was saying how crazy it was for someone to spend hundreds of dollars on something that I as a young person saw as an astronomical amount of money.

His advice was to consider things from the other side. His point was simple: Someone with a lot more money whose life wouldn’t be impacted in any appreciable way by a financial outlay was generally less put out by that outlay.

I don’t think my dad was really preaching relativism as a fundamental way to look at the world, but he certainly created a strong streak in his son.

I believe relativism in the law is inherent, and contradictory with classical images and the dogma of the courthouse.

The woman wearing a blindfold, carrying a sword and holding the scales in her hands is simply not an accurate portrayal of what actually goes on in the courtroom.

“Everything is relative” should be the motto in the courtroom, because justice is never blind.

Does that mean I’m saying justice isn’t fair because it isn’t really a blind sword-bearing woman on her way to a toga party?

Absolutely not. I am saying that for justice to happen it must be relative.

Of course, I’m talking mostly about the criminal law because that is what I have committed my career to at this point. But to a certain extent I believe civil matters are handled with a healthy dose of relativism.

Have you ever seen a pro se divorce hearing or a credit card bill trial represented by the person who can’t pay?

These are scary things, but I have never known a judge to not at least consider the parties in a lawsuit before placing expectations on them. And, if you are pro se you can guarantee that the judge will do everything short of ignore a rule, law or statute to make sure you are dealt with fairly in court. If that same person goes to court with an attorney by his or her side, then the court will expect that attorney to do what is expected in an ethical and professional manner.

Justice can’t be blind all the time.

In my practice, I have to be blind while trying to push for subjectivism from the courts and the rest of the system.

I recently won a bench trial for a third-degree assault case. The trial took the better part of a morning and was only a class C misdemeanor, so the stakes were drastically lower than the unclassified felonies I also have on my docket that can carry sentences of life in prison.

At the outset of my cases, I always remind folks that they are in charge. I will give them advice and they will make all the decisions, but sometimes it’s hard to tell whether or not they are just agreeing because their lawyer is telling them that one of two options has the least risk, or they are agreeing because they are really guilty.

You look at the evidence and try to discern what the state can prove, but ultimately you have to believe your clients unless there is something that clearly is contrary to their version. If that happens, it’s a tougher thing, but you are duty bound to show them the disparity and work for a resolution they desire.

The client with the third-degree assault ignored my advice to accept some probation and some community service and opted for a trial in front of the judge.

It was a he-said-she-said case, and while in-depth analysis of the statutory language provided the underpinnings for my successful defense, it was much simpler for her.

“I didn’t do nothin’.”

Many times it comes down to that, and because she applied and received my services we investigated the case and I spent several hours preparing.

It makes me wonder how many people don’t qualify for my services, need a lawyer and can’t get one.

If they were in my client’s shoes, they would likely have secured the probation or maybe a weekend in jail, but they would have done so as an innocent person.

This is but one example of the things lawyers can do in the community, for free, to give back for the great rewards we receive.

Not saying we don’t work for it, but, really, if you have the mental abilities this isn’t that hard of a job.

All this leads me to my endgame. I was encouraged recently to read in the e-mail Missouri Bar publication, Esquire, to see that the bar is again pushing for lawyers to do more pro bono work.

It is even asking for us to do a survey, and I for one think it would be worthwhile to know just how much of that work we are doing.

With more information, we could put together more information to encourage pro bono service in as effective a way as possible.

Then maybe we can focus on the small things more and help out the little guys instead of chasing big dollars, big cases or big egos.

After all, we really have enough of these things to go around already.

Craig Napier is an attorney in the Kirksville office of the Missouri State Public Defender System. He can be reached at