Should A Verdict Ever Be Changed?

The creation of laws is a “craft” according to Fuller. This particular craft has an internal morality which allows us to identify it as law. For the law to be considered legal, the practices/procedures must conform to morality. According to Fuller, releasing the man from prison would be unjust. Fuller explains how employing consistency in law making is essential (Pavlich 2011: 31). Changing a verdict on a case would create inconsistency and therefore make the law immoral. Inconsistency is a part of King Rex’s tale. Fuller identified eight characteristics that produce a failed legal system. Inconsistent adjudication is one of the characteristics (Pavlich 2011:31) . At the time of the offence, what the man did was illegal and you would have to stand by by your decision to reflect morality. The valid legislation at the time stated that it was illegal to sell marijuana. Essentially what would be happening is if you release the man then you will create inconsistency in the legal system and according to Fuller that would be a characteristic that makes law something else, essentially the law would not be law anymore according to Fuller (Pavlich 2011: 30-31) .

The issue of fairness comes up in regards to this case. Would it be fair to keep this man in jail, even though the law has changed in his favour? The focus needs to be on the time the offence was committed. The man in our scenario broke the law, and was handed a sentence under the most current legislation at the time. Even though the law is now saying that it is legal to regulate the production, sale, and possession of marijuana, it would still not apply to the man in our scenario. The only legislation that could affect him is the one that was active when he committed the offence. By applying the new legislation to the man in our scenario would create a climate of uncertainty. This would create confusion.

A good way to look at this case is to ask yourself, would it be fair to increase the man’s sentence if the new legislation became more strict on the production, sale and possession of marijuana?  The answer would be no, for all the same reasons. You would not increase the sentence because this would create some of the failures that are in Fuller’s law making procedures.  Also it would not abide to Finnis’ view of acting in a way that is in the interests of the common good (Pavlich 2011: 35) . Anytime a verdict is being changed you are creating an image of inconsistency and uncertainty to all of society. According to Finnis it is of paramount  importance to act in a way that promotes the common good. (Pavlich 2011: 35)  In this particular scenario changing a verdict creates a questioning of the firmness of the law. Law should be something in society that should never be questioned. By changing the verdict you would create an image of confusion/uncertainty. You would then be not acting in the interests of the common good.

John Finnis is another philosopher of law, and he states that each person has the ability to know what is morally right. Finnis feels that we should be concerned with a common code of conduct, especially one that coordinates our interactions (Pavlich 2011: 35-36). With the verdict not changing in this particular scenario it would be in the interest of the common good. If someone breaks the law he or she should be punished for it, it would be morally wrong if we change the verdict due to new legislation. At the time of the offence it was a punishable offence and to reverse that would not be in the interests of the common good of society. For a common good in society to exist, you will need to be consistent with the law. Reversing verdicts would create a problem because it is only in the interests of a small population (criminals).

My perspective on this scenario is that the verdict should not be changed. I think the most important detail is the time the offence was committed. Since the man had committed this offence when it was illegal he should have to serve his punishment. The introduction of new legislation should not be applicable to previous verdicts. It would create a huge burden for the court system. For example. if you change one verdict, that would create a precedent of changing many more verdicts. It will become very hard to determine where to draw the line.

I believe that the decision you make will be criticized no matter what. There will always be that small population that will like to play devil’s advocate. I think those same public protests will happen even if the courts decide to change the verdict. I am a firm believer that once someone is been tried fairly that you should not change the verdict due to new legislation. There can be many causes for new legislation that would not apply to the criminal. At the time the offence was committed there was a reason why that legislation was in use and you should stick with that verdict. Changes in legislation can happen for many different reasons. Times change, and society can change drastically that could force a change in legislation. Changing the verdict for someone that is already in prison would not make sense because he lived in a society that was different and therefore the old legislation should be applicable to him.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Should A Verdict Ever Be Changed?

  1. This is a well-written and interesting post.

    Your response correctly applies Fuller’s cautionary tale of King Rex to the case. You note that changing the verdict for the man in this scenario would ‘create inconsistency’ in the legal system. Certainly, Fuller’s caution against retroactivity suggests that he would agree with you. However, we also know that in his debate with Hart over the ‘grudge informer’ case, Fuller supported retroactive action that sought to undo some of the harms associated with Nazi-era German law. It follows that Fuller’s opposition to retroactivity is qualified, not absolute. Is it true that the internal morality of law would be breached in the Canadian drug case, but not in the grudge informer case? If so, what is the distinction?

    Regarding Finnis, I think that you are focusing too much on the idea of ‘consistency at all costs’. Finnis is concerned with the role of law as a mechanism for the facilitation of ‘common good’. Law, he argues, is not legitimate simply because it is created or applied according to certain processes – rather, its legitimacy is derived from its practical reasonableness an inherent values. Finnis might argue that the previous legal regime (under which the man was convicted) was a barrier to human flourishing, and that the new regime is more practical and just. He might propose that maintaining the conviction would represent a problematic commitment to bad law ‘for its own sake’.