Preface: I’m very aware that some of the things discussed in the following are emotive issues for many people and discussion of this case in particular can often cause upset. Before we begin, I want to make the flowing clear: I’m not trying to cause upset or offence with this post, what happened to James Bulger was terrible, however the events of that case is not what I’m discussing here. I’m discussing the concept of “justice”, what that means and who gets to say when justice has been done.


One of the most read news stories on the BBC website today is about the mother of James Bulger. The headline reads “James Bulger’s mum wants ‘justice’ 20 years after murder”. Basically, she wants the people who killed her son to remain in prison indefinitely and is campaigning for that. The reason the BBC were speaking to her today is that it is the 20th anniversary of her son’s death. The James Bulger case was highly publicised, causing national sadness and uproar and has left a lasting impact upon youth justice. The main example of this is the presumption of doli incapax for children aged 10-13 which was removed in the 1998 Crime and Disorder act to 10. This meant that children who previously would not have been held responsible for a crime due to a lack of understanding ofright and wrong couldnow be held to account (Section edited for factual accuracy 20/02/13). This was following the Bulger case, in which two 10 year olds were tried as adults in an adult court in 1993 due to “exceptional circumstances”. I don’t quite know how this decision was arrived at, or how it was justified. This brings me to the main point I wish to talk about; justification and justice.

Criminal justice is in essence, upholding the law. Ensuring that the rules we have made and agree to are kept fairly. Making sure that they apply to everyone equally, and that those who break the law are held to account under a clear set of standards. Justice upholds what is right as defined by the law. Whether or not you agree with those laws is a different question, and one that justice cannot answer. Making those laws and the penalty for breaking them explicit is part of this justice, it means that everyone is aware of the rules and that they can’t be changed without agreement from society. Justice is impartial; this is a large part of what makes it fair. However, this impartiality also makes it seem cold and unfeeling. But that is how it has to be; otherwise it would be easily swayed and become biased and unfair. Justice is an absolute, if it were any other way, it wouldn’t work.

In the case of James Bulger, his killers were found guilty and sentenced according to the standards of the law. They each served seven years in prison and were released on license. One of the pair was returned to prison after breaching the conditions of his license (in this case, committing another crime). Their treatment has been just. The rules were clearly laid out and have been adhered to. Denise Fergus (James Bulger’s mum) has every right to wish they remain in prison for the rest of their lives. She has no obligation to forgive them. However, she claims that there still has not been “justice” in this case. There has. We don’t have to like the outcome, but we cannot claim it is unjust.

Justice is often misrepresented or misunderstood, which leads to people claim they are seeking “justice” when they want retribution. The system of justice we currently have does not work on a like for like basis, whilst we punish for crimes, the punishment should be proportional to the crime itself, not the hurt caused by it. That doesn’t mean your hurt is without basis, or that you can’t express it, however, you should not expect justice to bend to it.


I appreciate that this has been a little heavy in terms of theme and tone. I’ve been reading lots of political philosophy lately which discusses these issues, which is difficult and stressful and seeing that BBC article may have broken the camels back of my tolerance slightly. I need to get some of this out, and this is my own space to let things out I suppose. I apologise again if this has upset anyone reading it, I’m not stating an opinion or not James Bulger’s killers should remain in prison or not. All I’m saying is as far as criminal law is concerned, justice has been done. If you don’t like the current state of justice in Britain, take it up with your MP.


About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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4 Responses to “Justice”

  1. GT says:

    Thanks I was having trouble understanding what justice they were talking about.
    Still googling/ researching it.

    • jessurwin says:

      Glad I could help! If you’re interested you might find the book “Justice” by Alan Ryan useful. Each chapter is from a different key text on justice and puts the main ideas of different conceptions across. It covers Plato, Utilitarianism, Social Justice, Marxism and other stuff. I found it pretty helpful.

  2. GT says:

    Excellent, it’s for a lone Humanities final module. I’ve been working of Rawls+ Sandel’s lectures so far. The book mentioned above will help. I’m concerned also whether a child can actually be apart of a social contract or not.

    • jessurwin says:

      Hmm, I’m not sure about that. I suppose we never formally agree to a social contract, the only marker of our agreement is if we stay within that society or not. Or if we protest aspects of it. I suppose with a child, as with most things, the parents would make that decision on their behalf. If the child is able to make and live by their own decision when they are able is a different question though, but pretty interesting!

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