What questions concerning the legal system does Bernard Schlink raise The Reader?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the most critical questions that Schlink raises about the legal system is whether it is capable of delivering true justice.  In Hanna's case, it is evident that the wrong person is found guilty.  In other words, the legal system was wrong.  It did not assign blame properly and it did not ensure that justice was done.  One of Schlink's points about the legal system is that when it is driven by forces that are not geared towards the deliberation of justice but rather "making a statement" or finding a scapegoat, justice is impossible to achieve. The judge wishes to make a statement about what happened in the camps. The social setting wishes to make a statement about what happened in the Holocaust.  The other defendants wish to make a statement to escape their own guilt and responsibility.  Michael wishes to make a statement by remaining silent.  Even Hanna makes a statement of not wanting her illiteracy to be discovered.  In each of these settings, the statement being made is fundamentally different than the primary drive for justice.  In this light, Schlink raises a question about how the legal system cannot bring about justice if it is driven by forces other than the drive for fairness.

Another question raised about the legal system in The Reader is how the presumption of due process can be absent when there is such an intense desire to find a particular verdict.   Human subjectivity cannot be overcome in the legal system, and Hanna's trial is indicative of this. The evidence was perceived as being in abundance in terms of convicting Hanna.  Yet, in the end, the verdicts reached were derived through evidence that was faulty.  The testimonies of the other guards were given more weight.  The signatures on the documents that supposedly implicated Hanna were not accurate.  The testimony of the child witness, now an adult, was damning, but, by itself, does not constitute due process being met.  At the same time, Hanna lacked adequate legal representation, one that could have probed the setting to establish that she was illiterate.  In the end, the truth about what happened and Hanna's own condition was concealed.  The justice system's understanding of due process is one that is meant to bring these realities to light.  Schlink's questions relate to what happens when the justice system does not follow due process and how this impacts the pursuits of legal constructions of justice.

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