Rethinking the concepts of fairness and justice (both in life and in law)

By Atty. Eduardo T. Reyes III


Is life really unfair? Are the asymmetries that we have to grapple with, hard facts of life that we should be resigned to?

People of Asian descent living or sojourning in America now have to deal with racial prejudice or bigotry because they are (unfairly) being associated with the heavily slanted moniker known as the “Asian virus” (in reference to Covid-19) that had infected every crevice in the world.

When we are being disadvantaged by an unfair situation, we look to Lady Justice who is blindfolded and holds a sword and a weighing scale on each hand. The cover in her eyes means that justice favors no one. The sword represents swift, precise and even sharp justice. While the scales of justice for its part is a metaphor for the delicate balancing act that courts must perform when deciding controversies.

Justice and fairness are a couple: one cannot be divorced from the other.

When courts are deciding cases, judges must sift through the facts and with utmost dexterity, apply the pertinent provisions of the law.

Given that fairness and justice are amorphous concepts, what is the function of the law in allocating fairness and delivering justice?

In Republic v. Manalo, G.R. No. 221029, April 24, 2018, citing as precedent Alonzo v. Intermediate Appellate Court, the Supreme Court explicated on how the law must relate to justice, thus:

“The question is sometimes asked, in serious inquiry or in curious conjecture, whether we are a court of law or a court of justice. Do we apply the law even if it is unjust or do we administer justice even against the law? Thus queried, we do not equivocate. The answer is that we do neither because we are a court both of law and of justice. We apply the law with justice for that is our mission and purpose in the scheme of our Republic. X x x But as has also been aptly observed, we test a law by its results: and likewise, we may add, by its purposes. It is a cardinal rule that, in seeking the meaning of the law, the first concern of the judge should be to discover in its provisions the intent of the lawmaker. Unquestionably, the law should never be interpreted in such a way as to cause injustice as this is never within the legislative intent. An indispensable part of that intent, in fact, for we presume the good motives of the legislature, is to render justice.

Thus, we interpret and apply the law not independently of but in consonance with justice. Law and justice are inseparable, and we must keep them so. To be sure, there are some laws that, while generally valid, may seem arbitrary when applied in a particular case because only of our nature and functions, to apply them just the same, in slavish obedience to their language. What we do instead is find a balance between the word and the will, that justice may be done even as the law is obeyed.”

And as to the judges who are known as the “administrators of justice”, jurisprudence enjoins them to “not unfeelingly apply the law as worded”, to wit:

“As judges, we are not automatons. We do not and must not unfeelingly apply the law as it is worded, yielding like robots to the literal command without regard to its cause and consequence. “Courts are apt to err by sticking too closely to the words of law,” so we are warned, by Justice Holmes again, “where these words import a policy that goes beyond them.”

x x x x

More than twenty centuries ago, Justinian defined justice “as the constant and perpetual wish to render every one of his due.” That wish continues to motivate this Court when it assesses the facts and the law in every case brought to it for decisions. Justice is always an essential ingredient of its decisions. Thus when the facts warrant, we interpret the law in a way that will render justice, presuming that it was the intention of the lawmaker, to begin with, that the law be dispensed with justice.

Indeed, where the interpretation of a statute according to its exact and literal import would lead to mischievous results or contravene the clear purpose of the legislature, it should be construed according to its spirit and reason, disregarding as far as necessary the letter of the law. A statute may therefore, be extended to cases not within the literal meaning of its terms, so long as they come within its spirit or intent.”(underlining and italics supplied, citations omitted).

 Along the same line is the ruling that was handed down just barely four (4) months from Republic v. Manalo, viz:

In closing, it must be emphasized that the Court is both of law and of justice. Thus, the Court’s mission and purpose is to apply the law with justice. (The Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Fatima (Peach Sisters of Laguna) represented by Rev. Mother Ma. Concepcion R. Realon v. Amando V. Alzona et al., G.R. No. 224307, August 6, 2018).

In simple terms, when courts render their verdict, they ought to heed their mission which is to “apply the law with justice”. Of course, as already said, justice is a relative term and when the two protagonists present conflicting claims, deciding where justice lies may not be an easy thing to do. However, there are cases wherein the facts are straightforward. In these instances, courts must not be too mechanical in their application of the law lest it be the reason for the law to elude justice.

When a burglary takes place for instance and the court attributes blame on the victim simply for failing to lock the door or window, that could be an example of the law being unmoored from justice. It could be a logical equivalent of blaming the victim in a rape case for dressing or acting inappropriately.

Life becomes unfair in these situations. But should it remain that way? No, whoever said that “life is unfair” is mistaken.  The fundamental tenets of universal justice aims to “give everyone his due”.

There are just some matters that cannot be compromised. Life, the law, justice and equity, all envisage fairness.

We cannot, and should not, be consoled by the idea that life is unfair. We should instead demand for life to be fair because that is nature’s law which should be summoned and harnessed.


(The author is the senior partner of ET Reyes III & Associates- a law firm based in Iloilo City. He is a litigation attorney, a law professor and a law book author. His website is