Procedural Justice

Promoting Fairness

Imagine that you are a teenager charged with an offense and required to go to court. What aspects of your lawyer might make you feel you have a fair chance at justice? What lawyer actions or non-actions might make you feel that your lawyer is part of a rigged system that will not treat you fairly?

Lawyer and client

Fair treatment is a fundamental right of our legal system and is embodied in due process requirements. In addition, whether or not we fairly treat young people may have some impact on their futures.

During adolescence, young people are developing and establishing long-term attitudes about how the law works. They are also developing tendencies regarding their own cooperation with legal authorities and compliance with the law. This process is called legal socialization. Research suggests that whether young people view their interactions with “legal actors” as fair or not importantly contributes to whether they view the legal system as legitimate and likely contributes to their long-term cooperation and compliance with the law.

Procedural justice refers to the experience of citizens with the court and legal process as to whether the process seems fair. There is a growing body of research that suggests that when individuals experience the process as fair, they are more likely to trust the system, obey the law, comply with court orders, return for further hearings, and are less likely to repeat their offenses. Procedural justice has been studied in courtrooms focusing on judges, in police interactions, in school settings, and to a lesser extent in attorney-client relationships.

Lawyers play a fundamental role in protecting youth’s legal rights AND, regardless of legal outcome, in helping young people learn that the legal system is a fair system where their voice is heard, where they are treated with respect and without bias, and where their attorney can be trusted to want the best for them and to work their hardest to achieve that. Viewing the system as fair appears to be an important element in a young person’s future law abiding and cooperative behavior.

Key components to procedural justice

Researchers have identified four key components to procedural justice


having one’s viewpoint heard


unbiased decision-makers and transparency. Since lawyers are not supposed to be unbiased – but are suppose to take their client’s side, this component has been re-conceptualized for lawyer interactions as objectivity. Objectivity refers to the lawyer not pre-judging the client and accepting the client.

Respectful treatment

individuals are treated with dignity

Trustworthy authorities

the view that the authority (including the lawyer) is benevolent, caring, and genuinely trying to help

What can defense counsel do?

For voice

  • Listen attentively to client’s perspective; ask clarifying questions
  • Communicate with your client that you are there to communicate their stated interest to the court and you work for them, not the court system
  • Present client’s perspective to court or if not, explain clearly to client why you are not
  • Become familiar with the process of adolescent development, so you can understand and communicate effectively with your client

For objectivity

  • Be aware of common tendencies to pre-judge clients and consciously work to avoid or address such judgments
  • If you have strong opinions about lifestyles, clothing, language, etc., be conscious of not extending those to your clients
  • Let each of your clients know that you need to thoroughly understand the specific facts of their case and their situation
  • Communicate to your client that you accept them for who they are
tattooed girl

For respectful treatment

  • Treat your clients and their families with respect including respecting their time
  • Be tactful if you need to ask the client to dress or otherwise change their appearance for a court appearance
  • Put yourself in your client’s situation to better understand their perspective. Educate yourself about cultural differences and considerations when dealing with special populations that differ from your own experience.
tattooed girl

For trustworthy authorities

  • Show your clients that you are working hard for them (by working hard for them)
  • Give them your contact info and promptly return calls, texts (you may give them parameters - e.g. unless it is a true emergency, I will get back to you during business hours)
  • Follow through
  • Provide clear and understandable information about what is going on in the case; keep your client updated; answer questions
  • Be aware of the tendency for professionals in service roles to develop compassion fatigue, which can interfere with your ability to serve your client.  Take steps to take care of yourself, so that you can be effective in your role.
  • Clearly explain to your client about your ethical duty of confidentiality