One of the curious things about English law is that really important case law is based on apparent trivialities. For instance, the present law of negligence and liability was based on a 1932 case involving a bottle of ginger beer containing a disintegrating snail. And many of the cases I do as Judge Rinder in my television show may seem similarly slight or even mildly comic (a recent case involved an elderly performer in a lime green mankini) but they raise questions of important principle. They also tell me quite a lot about our human instinct for justice.
That instinct is, I am sure, innate. You can see that we are preloaded with a sense of justice if you watch pre-verbal small children, who have an absolutely intuitive sense of the moral order. Their fury when they see it violated isn’t any less because of their inability to express it.
People often ask, why would anyone come on my show for so little money; why do the participants get so angry? Overwhelmingly, it is because they want to have it acknowledged that they are the victim of an injustice and the other person is the perpetrator. Mostly, there is no possibility of obtaining any sort of redress in law but what I can do is articulate the moral principle involved. People want those who wronged them to hear the consequences of their actions; they want to express how they feel they have been let down.
In a case, for instance, where a hard-up grandmother lends her grandson her savings for what sounds like a good purpose, only to find that he has spent the money frivolously, there may be no remedy. But what I can do is turn to the grandson and say, “this is what your actions have done”. The justice that the grandmother is seeking isn’t just about money; it’s about the violation of the moral order. And it’s important that she gets to hear this articulated for the first time. She’s looking for an apology. What I do is provide an arena where people are conscripted to hear one another. In many cases, it works. Even without financial redress, when people find that their wrongs are acknowledged, family healing can follow.
Noam Chomsky’s great discovery was that human beings are born with a pre-set facility to learn language. Like vocabulary and grammar, the threads of justice are intertwined with our DNA.
I certainly wasn’t conscious of this when I became a lawyer. Despite having grown up around challenges of all sorts, I had no calling for criminal defence work. Then I found myself at the epicentre of devastating human stories. Case after case, year after year I came to realise that of all the preventable horrors in human life, the malignancy of injustice was the one that I could not tolerate.
I was slow to recognise how this thread was woven early in my childhood. My grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, never sat me down and talked me through what happened to him. It would be a whisper from my mother after an emotional outburst (“It’s because of what he’s been through”) or the small parcels of food we’d find tucked away around the house “just in case”. Each of these moments wove themselves into my psyche. It made sense that I would be drawn to a life of trying to create a more just world.
With time, though, practising law lost this sense of purpose for me. As Legal Aid disappeared and my own career progressed towards ever more cases about billionaires fighting over billionaire things, the story that I was telling myself to give my work meaning stopped making sense to me. It had been the belief that I was fighting injustice which gave me the capacity to recover after such emotionally draining work, and I just didn’t believe that any more.
And then, after a somewhat bizarre series of unexpected events, Judge Rinder came along. I am more than aware of the snobbish criticisms of the show (it is sneered at as “lightweight”), but I saw this as a chance to find work with a new meaning.
As I said, most of the cases brought before me are disputes between two people, each of whom believes that they are experiencing intolerable unfairness. My job as judge, then, is to do my best to apply the law; but more than this, it is to create an environment where both parties can speak freely and feel heard, so that, whatever the ruling, a greater understanding has been reached between them. In helping to resolve these toxic conflicts and bringing a sense that justice has been done into the lives of people at a catastrophic impasse, I found meaning in my work again.
The soul’s inability to tolerate injustice is one of the strongest, deepest things we share as human beings, and we are all born with it.
Robert Rinder presents Judge Rinder on ITV and The Rob Rinder Verdict on Channel 4