Summary: God will judge us by law or grace and the choice is ours.
I am going to talk to you today about something vital to your welfare. However, most of us take it for granted. In fact, most of us aren’t even aware that it exists. I am going to talk about an idea that is one of the foundation stones of our modern legal system. Without this principle equal justice for all would be merely an idealistic dream, a rhetorical slogan, a piece of propaganda. However, with this concept modern civilization can dare to conceive the dangerous dream of a democratic society offering freedom and equality for all. This idea makes possible the impossible. This idea puts within reach the unreachable. The application of this idea can attain the unattainable.
Let me illustrate this point. Consider with me for a moment the legal system of eleventh century England. English common law evolved from court decisions rather than legislation. This system that resulted was a monumental achievement. In fact, it eventually became the basis of our United States legal system.
However, it was far from perfect. You see, in time the common law became so narrow and strict that it actually denied justice to some. Unless your case fell within one of its norms, you would fail to receive justice. The magistrate would give a verdict that would be legal, but it would also be unfair. Such was the problem that common law brought to England.
For example, suppose someone was cutting down shade trees on your land. The English common law would allow you to bring charges against this person and it would fine him accordingly. However, it wasn’t the money you wanted. You wanted the trees. Once cut down, no amount of money could ever repay you for their loss. Unfortunately, The court could only impose a fine after the deed. It could not legally force the person to stop cutting down your trees. Therefore, in your case the law was not fair, though the judge’s decision was perfectly legal.
Furthermore, suppose you entered into a contract with someone who later defaulted. Under English common law you could sue for damages and the court would impose penalties upon the one breaking the contract. Again, however, it is not the money but the performance of the contract that you need. Unfortunately, the common law could not legally enforce the performance; it could only impose penalties for nonperformance. Therefore, law again was not fair to you, though the judge’s decision was perfectly legal. This placed justice and fairness at odds with each other.
As time passed, people began to complain to the king about the unfairness of decisions based on common law. So the king passed these matters on to his chancellor and gave him the power to adjust on the basis of fairness. The chancellor could do this even if his verdict went contrary to a principle of common law. Thus, a new court system came into existence called the court of equity.
In the court of equity, a new principle operated. Common law only dealt with the letter of the law. However, the court of equity concerned itself with the spirit of that law. Therefore, the limits placed on this court were not the strict limits of written law. To the contrary, the only limit binding the court of equity was the limit of conscience. This meant that if a conflict arose between common law and equity, the principle of equity would win. Fairness became the final criteria, rather than the narrow letter of the law.