For a children’s series, the Harry Potter books have done a remarkable job of winning the hearts of adults across the world. Rowling’s world is a fully realized one, her books providing insight into diffierent magical systems, including banking, retail enterprises, government functions and, of course, the legal system. Unlike Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Lewis’s Narnia, none of these systems are perfect specimens of how things ‘should’ work in the real world. In this essay, I’m going to examine one of those: the legal system and its many pitfalls in the Potterverse.
Legal System in Potterverse
1. Breaking down the legal system
Pre trial Phase
The British wizarding world seems to follow a very simple legal process. If a witch or wizard is found to have violated one or more laws, the Ministry of Magic either sends a notice alerting them to it and summoning them to a hearing (for the less dire offences, like Harry’s Patronus) or sends law enforcement officials to apprehend them (for obvious human rights and safety violations like Sirius’s supposed destruction of a street and murder of twelve bystanders). After this notice/arrest, there is a trial, the consequences of which are (in the cases outlined above) expulsion and exile from the magical community, or detention in Azkaban.
The trial of a wizard is best illustrated in Order of the Phoenix, when Harry is summoned in connection to his flouting of the Decree for the Restriction of Underage Sorcery. In the wizarding world criminal trials take place before a body known as the Wizengamot, a collection of nominated witches and wizards who, like a jury, vote upon the guilt or innocence of the party being interrogated. There appear to be no legal counsels, only ‘interrogators’ and ‘witnesses’. The interrogators are in charge of questioning the alleged culprit and the defendant himself is responsible for convincing the Wizengamot of his or her innocence, or relying on a witness to do so. The trial therefore, is inherently an unfair one. Nor is the Wizengamot’s decision an anonymous one, like that of a ‘real life’ jury. Instead of retreating into a room and coming forth only when they have arrived upon a verdict (and not disclosing who voted what) the members raise their hands before the defendant, allowing him or her to see who stands with or against them.
As noted above, punishment in the wizarding world, so far as we can see, seems to take two forms- the expulsion of the culprit through snapping his or her wand and banning him or her from doing magic or deporting the individual for a term in the prison Azkaban. In many cases this is in itself a death sentence, with prisoners either going mad or starving themselves to death on the island. It is rare to see an individual emerge from Azkaban unscathed. Even Sirius Black, the only prisoner to have not gone mad within the walls, comes out emotionally arrested, unable to move past the trauma of his incarceration.1
The worst punishment is the ‘Dementor’s Kiss’, wherein a criminal’s soul is sucked out through his or her mouth. This sentence seems to be awarded with no due legal process. Sirius, for instance, originally given a life sentence in Azkaban, is slapped with the Dementor’s Kiss midway through Prisoner, with no reportage on how this deliberation was arrived at.
The wizarding society also tries ‘beasts’ in its court, and when they are found guilty of crimes, awards the death penalty, as in the case of Buckbeak the Hippogriff.
2. The Problems
General problems within the legal system
The very structure of the wizarding legal process opens it up to all kinds of problems. These come in many forms, including, but not limited to, the ‘big brother’ like role the government plays in citizens’ lives. In Deathly Hallows, we finally learn that every wizarding child under the age of seventeen has a ‘trace’ placed on them, that tracks them and alerts officials to their performance of magic. In a world where this sort of invasion of privacy is condoned, even actively encouraged, there is little hope of the citizenry resisting or even being alert to the overriding of basic rights like anonymity, accountability from government officials, or transparent legal processes.
Functioning of the Law enforcement agencies
The wizarding police (Aurors) do not appear to require something as basic as a warrant to place an individual under arrest. Instead, enforcers turn up, drag the accused to court, or prison, and seem to wait until events either prove or disprove their guilt.
Issue of privacy
To add to this, the wizarding world is in itself so small that everyone seems to know or have heard of everyone else. An overwhelming majority of the citizens have attended the same school—Hogwarts—and a great deal of character judgment is implicit in the House system that divides students in their first year. Tags like ‘Slytherin’ and ‘Gryffindor’ follow citizens into their adult lives, as Hagrid demonstrates right from Philosopher’s Stone: ‘There wasn’t a witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t from Slytherin’.
Apart from House tags and there character associations they conjure, the size of the wizarding population ensures that most of the pureblood families are known to each other, and their histories are an open book. This leads to, once again, bias in judgments, as in the case of both Hagrid and Sirius Black.
Four Cases and a Manifestation of the Challenges
In this section, I will illustrate how these weaknesses and prejudices influence the functioning of the legal system in the Potterverse, and the results of the same on the society as a whole. The cases I will take into consideration are Hagrid, Sirius, Harry and Barty Crouch Jr.
On procedural impropriety and denial of compensation
Hagrid’s expulsion from Hogwarts, as we find out in Chamber of Secrets, took place on unfounded grounds. What is worse is that when attacks start up again in the school, he is taken into preventive custody by the Minister of Magic himself and sent off to Azkaban. This is done purely on the (wrongly held) notion that he had been responsible earlier. There is no summoning, no hearing, no investigation at all— the Minister and Lucius Malfoy simply turn up one night and escort Hagrid off the premises.
Though Harry reflects that ‘he, Ron and Hermione had been responsible for clearing Hagrid’s name’ at the end of Chamber of Secrets, we don’t hear of Hagrid receiving any restitution or even a formal apology for the trauma that he went through. Is he allowed to attend school and finish his education later? We never find out. Does the government apologise to him for its glaring mistakes? Again, we do not know. But Hagrid’s case does illustrate one thing: once you are marked, on whatever grounds, you can and will be answerable to the worst face of the law.
On facilitating mob justice
Another innocent individual, Sirius Black is thrown into Azkaban for life as a high-security inmate without a trial. Caught the day after Voldemort’s downfall, Sirius’s arrest is a cause for celebration in the community, and his quick sentencing no doubt a result of two things:
– A desire to tie up all the ‘loose ends’ associated with the Dark Lord.
Sirius’s family history tells against him. The Blacks by this point are known to have had at least two members in Voldemort’s camp—Bellatrix and Regulus—and are known to be anti-Muggle, pro-pureblood members of wizarding society. As a member of that family, Sirius is automatically under suspicion.
– Sirius’ own actions as a student
Sirius’s character has also come under question earlier on, during his school days. Dumbledore admits that he himself gave evidence, stating that Sirius had been the Potters’ Secret Keeper. No doubt, he might have remembered the incident where Sirius led Snape to the werewolf in the Shrieking Shack. As Snape states in Prisoner of Azkaban, ‘Sirius Black proved he was capable of murder at the age of sixteen’. With such details available to the jury and corroborated by a figure as venerated as Dumbledore, Sirius’s warrant was signed and sealed the moment the Aurors found him on that street in London. His family and personal history tell against him to such an extent as to deny him even the mockery of a trial.
On challenging elite capture
In Order of the Phoenix, Harry performs illegal, unsupervised magic before a Muggle (his cousin Dudley). He gets served a hearing by the Ministry of Magic and is suspended from Hogwarts, pending the outcome. Instead of a simple hearing as he expects, however, Harry gets landed will a full-blown criminal trial where he is subjected to interrogation by none other than Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic himself.
It is clear that Fudge dislikes Harry and is annoyed by him, given the nature of his questions and his cutting across all of Harry’s replies. Even though he is an underage wizard, Harry is denied any sort of legal support or adult counsel, and is expected to somehow wing his way through the trial with no idea of how to manage. It is lucky for him that Dumbledore shows up, which begs the question: do defendants not have to summon their own witnesses? Can some impartial, outside authority do it for them? This is the only trial where we actually see some sort of defence and Fudge’s very personal attacks on Harry’s witnesses make it clear that if it weren’t for the Dumbledore’s reputation and persuasive skills Harry’s trial might have had a very different outcome. It seems unlikely that, without Dumbledore to speak for him, many of the Wizengamot would have dared to go against the verdict Fudge so clearly desires.
A fair trial (funnily enough)
Finally, the only reasonably fair trial we see in the Potter series is that of the three Lestranges and Barty Crouch Jr. Presided over by the then Head of Magical Law Enforcement, Barty Crouch, the trial proceeds with the interrogation of the Death Eaters, and leads to their sentencing. The reader is led to believe that this is a fair trial, simply because Rowling makes sure we know that the four were in fact guilty of the crime they were accused of (ie, torturing the Longbottoms). However, again there is no process involving legal counsels. Instead, Crouch delivers his questions, receives answers and/or sobbing from the defendants, and then they are unanimously voted into Azkaban by the Wizengamot.
Through this trial Rowling highlights the broken nature. not of the legal system, but that of the families whose lives are ruined by it. Crouch’s dedication to eradicating Dark wizards, it is hinted, is what led him to ignore the growing delinquency and wrong choices his own son was making. So, strangely enough, though this trial is presented as a legally sound one, perhaps the only such example in the books (even Karkaroff, the only other rightfully convicted Death Eater, is let off in exchange for information), it is used to question a man’s ethics and highlight the narrowness of privileging blind adherence to a cause (however ‘legally sound’) over love and family, the core themes of the series.
The wizarding society- it’s obvious- is no utopia. It has more than its fair share of corruption, broken systems, and endemic prejudices. Though Rowling hints in her post-series interviews that things are beginning to change, with people like Hermione taking up legal work and instituting reform within the government, not everything can be solved overnight. Bribery and nepotism still influence things—the greatest example is the Malfoys’ being absolved of war crimes and staying out of Azkaban, no doubt thanks to Harry’s interference. Personal histories and prejudices will continue to play a role in the legal system so long as the population remains this small. The anonymity and impartiality that drives a sound legal system will, for that reason, remain elusive in the Potterverse. But it’s things like this that prove Rowling’s universe a well realised one: it isn’t a utopia and, sadly enough, there are some things that even magic can’t solve.
1 This could of course be explained by the fact that Sirius is not allowed the freedom he so desperately craves, and is instead locked back into another prison—his childhood home—for his own safety. But even Harry is able to note that the effects of Grimmauld Place only compound the sort of claustrophobia and manic depression that was the result of Azkaban.