What are the Scales of Justice?

You have likely heard the phrase ‘scales of justice’ from time to time, and think you have a rough idea of what they are, but what does it actually mean?

Read our article below to discover the meaning and history of the scales of justice? 

What are the scales of justice? 

The scales of justice are a symbol found commonly in courts, and places of law (like, for example, law enforcement offices). If you have studied law, undoubtedly you have seen a textbook emblazoned with a picture of brass scales. 

Originally, they come from Lady Justice (the Goddess of Justice), who is seen holding the scales of justice suspended from one of her hands.

Lady Justice is an allegorical personification of all the forces that epitomize and drive the justice system, so the scales of justice are a very important, to show that the court system and law enforcement is fair and balanced. 

In most of the depictions of Lady Justice (such as statues and artwork), she holds the scale in just one hand, and has suspended it in the air. It symbolizes that one party is being evaluated, using evidence supplied by the other party. 

Another significant symbolic characteristic of the scale of justice is that there are is no base to the set of scales, which indicates that all of the evidence should be weighed and valued by its own merit, rather than being impacted by other impacting forces (which would make the trial unfair). The evidence has to stand on its own. 

The first recorded depiction of the Scales of Justice is the Ancient Greek goddess Dike, who hold foundation free scales in one hand. There is evidence for this in – 

Bacchylides, Fragment 5 (translated by Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric IV) (Greek lyric circa 5th B.C.):

‘If some god had been holding level the balance of Dike (Justice). 

There are also a lot of depictions of the scales of justice handing alone (without the Goddess of Justice). A lot of lawyers, law firms, and professionals that work within the legal field use the symbol of the scales in their websites, logos, or other types of branding. It shows that they are knowledgeable legal professionals, that adhere to the principles and moral forces set out by the scales. 

The meaning attached to the Scales of Justice

Nowadays, in the legal system, the Scales of Justice represent fairness and truth, usually pictured alongside Lady Justice. The justice system has to search for the truth by fairly weighing all of the evidence, without prejudice, or any other influences. 

The case presented has to be evaluated based on solely its strength, and evidence from both sides has to be weighed against each other, and the scale shows a balance of evidence of one party in relation to the other, free from any other intervention.

Then, the party that is able to present the more complete and convincing case of evidence, they have the ‘weight’ of evidence when it comes to the evaluation stage of the trial process. 

The Fair Evaluation of Evidence 

The courts must evaluate any evidence in a fair manner, without any regard for other confounding variables or interference, other than the case directly presented by the parties.

This is one of the main principles of the court system, and has to be adhered to, so that all defendants receive a fair trial (which is defined s a human right). 

For a judge or jury to give a decision or verdict, they have to have considered all of the evidence presented by each party, and use the sum of this to reach a conclusion. 

In general, the more credible, and admissible evidence that a lawyer is able to present on behalf of their party, the more that the Scales of Justice will tip in their favor.

There are some types of evidence that are valued more highly than others though – such as eyewitness testimony, and biological evidence (e.g., DNA), so it is not just a question of quantity, but also quality.

Often, juries (which are made up of members of the public that fall within the court’s jurisdiction) are inexperienced, and not professionals in a field of law, so a few key pieces of impactful, ‘weighty’ evidence will be more useful than just bombarding a jury with too much evidence for them to take in and consider. 

If the defendant has waved their right to a trial in front of a jury of their peers, then a judge will be appointed by law to oversee the case, evaluate any evidence presented, and reach a fair conclusion based on the evidence presented. 

Origin of the Scale of Justice 

As we have already briefly covered, the Scale of Justice dates all the way from Ancient Greece. It has a symbolic meaning that dates from centuries ago. 

The Scales symbolize the right for all people to seek and obtain justice, and for the authorities involved in justice to administer it fairly through evaluation of evidence.

Though this might seem like a modern concept (cast your mind back to things of yore, like the witch trials and religious persecution). But, it is actually far more ancient than you may initially believe. The Ancient Greeks brought us everything from working doorbells to democracy, and were the first people to outline the human right to a fair trial. 

It was engrained in their legal system – and the Goddess of Justice  holding the Scales depicts the incorporation of both individual rights in society and the divine.

That’s not to say that all punishment would have been fair by today’s standards – classic civilizations tended to have gruesome and macabre attitudes to crime and punishment. 

Justitia, the Roman Goddess of Justice, was depicted with a set of balanced scales in one hand (symbolizing fair trial), and a sword in the other (symbolizing punishing offenders), and was sometimes wearing a blindfold (preventing prejudice or other influencing forces, so that justice is served impartially). 

The Greek Goddess of Justice, Themis, also held scales, but was neither blindfolded, nor holding a sword. In the Ancient Egyptian culture, Maat was the Goddess that oversaw truth, justice, and order. 

Summary of the Scales of Justice 

The Scales of Justice are the most commonly used symbol in the legal system, seen in courthouses, law firms, and judicial bodies, to symbolize a fair legal system, free of prejudice, so that a fair and right outcome can be reached. 

They have a historic basis, first seen in the deities of ancient cultures, but the scales are still a very popular image used today, and can be seen to be characterizing the modern justice system.