Is Lady Justice blind or just blinkered?

Rebecca Roberts
Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Most people will be familiar with ‘Lady Justice’ – a statue or picture of a woman often blindfolded, holding a set of scales. Lady Justice is intended to represent objectivity and impartiality in the legal system.

As part of the Justice Matters for Women project we have posted a series of comment pieces highlighting the failings of criminal justice in the context of women - pointing out the possibility that Lady Justice may not be as 'blind' or impartial as we are often led to believe. Firstly, the system fails women caught up in criminal justice, magnifying and reinforcing existing social injustices experienced by people who have been punished. Secondly, the criminal justice system (CJS) fails to protect or respond adequately to victims or survivors of violence. Alongside this, there is the overlapping nature of law breaking and victimhood where women with experience of abuse, assault and sexual violence are frequently swept up in the CJS as ‘offenders’.

Is criminalisation the route to emancipation?

So what are we to do? - Accept the limitations of criminal justice and operate within its boundaries by improving police responses, witness support and protection, prison programmes, support for prisoners? 

There are problems with focusing predominantly on CJS interventions - for women who have broken the law and/or those women who have been subject to harm or violence. As Mimi Kim, in an analysis of anti-violence work and criminalisation in the USA argues - the ‘constraining logic of criminalisation’ has resulted in 'the alignment of the anti-domestic violence movement with the criminal justice system and foreclosed alternative conceptual frames and remedies.’

Kim describes a widening of the criminal justice net and institutionalisation of social work responses within a criminal justice framework; 

‘The dominating framework of a social problem as a crime and the accompanying reliance upon criminalisation and alliances with the institutions of crime control have contributed to the unwitting participation in the current policy of mass incarceration....

Despite the anti-violence movement's commitment to social justice, the emanicipation from gendered violence has become bound to the ceding of feminist power to the patriarchal and racially biased authority of the state.'

Research here in the UK has reached similar conclusions. Based on their study of violence against women initiatives in Merseyside in the late 1990's, Tina Hall and David Whyte conclude;

'the marginalisation of the expert knowledge of non-statutory women's organisations is closely linked to the reinforcement of the traditional concerns of crime control.'

They add;

'The most effective way to challenge police supremacy and to start to rebuild effective means of protection for women with violent partners is to redivert resources from the traditional axis of criminal justice and into adequate, stable sources of funding for women's services.' 

The argument here is that criminalisation and criminal justice crowds out wider acknowledgement of the roles that patriarchy and systemic inequality play in creating and allowing violence to take place. Uncritically engaging in what might on the surface seem like criminal justice 'toughness' may unwittingly tether those who want better outcomes for women to an approach which undermines recognition of the harms women face. Below I outline key statements put forward by other organisations that have also thought about this issue. There are pros and cons to these approaches, and they may not be entirely relevant to our context – both are a based in America - but they are worth a look.

Incite! Critical Resistance: Statement on gender violence and the penal industrial complex (2001)

We call on social justice movements to develop strategies and analysis that address both state AND interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women.

Currently, activists/movements that address state violence (such as anti-prison, anti-police brutality groups) often work in isolation from activists/movements that address domestic and sexual violence. The result is that women of color, who suffer disproportionately from both state and interpersonal violence, have become marginalized within these movements. It is critical that we develop responses to gender violence that do not depend on a sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic criminal justice system. It is also important that we develop strategies that challenge the criminal justice system and that also provide safety for survivors of sexual and domestic violence

To live violence free-lives, we must develop holistic strategies for addressing violence that speak to the intersection of all forms of oppression.

One Billion Rising

This is what justice looks like

One Billion Rising for justice is about envisioning justice for all survivors of gender violence.

Justice can take many forms.

It can be an apology or reparations. Taking legal action.  It can be about making the truth visible. It can be prosecuting, or pushing to create change, or implementing policies and laws that ensure the protection of women’s rights. It can be calling for an end to all forms of inequality, discrimination, misogyny and patriarchy.

It can be naming or shaming perpetrators – whether they be individuals, groups, corporations or the state.

Demanding accountability.  It can be rising for justice be it personal, social, economic, cultural, environmental or political.  It can be a revolutionary call to restore dignity and respect for all women.

It can be about transformation.

Taking off the blinkers

Lady Justice is far from blind – she is blinkered, biased and discriminatory. Women who have been subject to violence know this. Women who have been convicted of an offence know this. Research and official reports back this up. Violence is harmful whether it is a threat, a rape, a punch, a smack. Individuals commit individual violent acts. However, such acts should be understood against backdrop of injustice that forms part of a continuum of harmful experiences. As suggested by suggested by Incite!, Critical Resistance, and One Billion Rising – among many others – violence is more than just a criminal act. It is a process. It is endemic.

Is it possible to articulate a political analysis and understanding of the role that the criminal justice system plays in maintaining existing power relations in the United Kingdom? If so, what might that conversation involve? Can we shift the debate in the UK?

Through Justice Matters for Women our hope is to stimulate discussion about how we might remove the blinkers. We hope there may be scope for a conversation that recognises the limitations of criminal justice and seeks a structural analysis of violence and it's solutions that recognises the impact of race, gender and class.

Rebecca Roberts is Senior Policy Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

Related items

Addressing violence against women beyond criminal justice (11 February, 2014)
Punishing women and criminal justice failure
 (5 February, 2014)
Criminal justice and reducing the harms that women face (27 January, 2014)
Is criminal justice a form of violence against women? (25 November, 2013)