top of page

Cultural Relativism and the Justice System: Impacts on Legal Processes and Outcomes in the NT

In the Northern Territory of Australia, a region characterised by its stark landscapes and rich culture, the intersection of cultural relativism and the justice system has ignited complex debate. This discussion, deeply rooted in the philosophies of justice, individual rights, and societal responsibilities, grapples with the nuanced question of how to balance respect for cultural practices with the universal principles of justice and human rights. At the heart of this issue lies the contention that cultural relativism, when applied within legal processes, leads to outcomes that inadvertently increase recidivism, fail to hold criminals accountable, and exacerbate issues such as child abuse and neglect within Aboriginal communities.

Cultural relativism, the idea that a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person's own culture, presents a particular challenge for the justice system. While it encourages sensitivity and respect for diversity, its application within legal frameworks leads to variances in sentencing, legal interpretations, and the administration of justice. In the Northern Territory, where a significant proportion of the population is Indigenous, these challenges are not merely theoretical but are lived realities with tangible consequences. It epitimises the belief that the public has that there is one rule for me and another for thee.


The application of cultural relativism in legal proceedings has led to outcomes where traditional practices and norms are considered mitigating factors in sentencing. While the intention behind this approach is to ensure a fair and culturally sensitive justice system, it raises critical questions about equality before the law and the universal applicability of human rights standards. Critics argue that this can result in lighter sentences for serious crimes, thereby undermining the deterrent effect of the legal system and failing to adequately protect victims' rights, particularly in cases of domestic violence, child abuse, and neglect. The clear evidence of this in effect in the Northern Territory is palpable.

One of the most significant criticisms of the culturally relativistic approach to legal processes is its potential contribution to higher rates of recidivism. When offenders receive sentences that are perceived as lenient or not commensurate with the gravity of their actions, it diminishes the perceived seriousness of their crimes, both to the offenders themselves and to the wider community. This not only undermines the authority of the law but also fails to address the underlying behaviours and circumstances leading to criminality, thereby perpetuating a cycle of offending. The numerous occasions where indigenous youths on bail for violent armed offences have killed other innocent, non-indigenous people are examples of the devastating consequences of this cycle. It has diminished our standing internationally, as the alleged murderer of a young foreign student was on bail for violent offences and had a history of racial violence against non-aboriginals.

Nowhere are the consequences of this approach more heartbreaking than in cases involving child abuse and neglect within Aboriginal communities. The principle of cultural relativism, when misapplied as a blanket rationale for leniency in such sensitive cases, leads to what critics describe as "judicial neglect." This term encapsulates a failure to intervene effectively and protect the most vulnerable members of society, based on the premise of respecting cultural differences. Such outcomes not only have devastating impacts on the individuals involved but also on the fabric of the community, eroding trust in the legal system and perpetuating cycles of harm. The judicial members involved in such obvious travesty of justice are protected by tenure and appointment, which only compounds the pain and suffering they impose.


Instances from the Northern Territory illustrate these dynamics. Cases where cultural practices have been cited as mitigating factors in serious crimes have sparked national debates on the limits of cultural relativism in legal adjudication. For example, debates have arisen over sentencing decisions in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault, where the cultural context has been considered in determining penalties. These decisions often prompt a backlash, reflecting broader societal concerns about ensuring justice for victims and maintaining public confidence in the legal system. When an online poll was carried out in the Northern Territory, trust in the judiciary in the Northern Territory was less than 25%.


The challenge is to forge a path that respects cultural identities and practices while upholding the principles of justice, accountability, and protection for all community members. This requires a nuanced approach that recognises the value of cultural relativism in understanding context and motive but does not allow it to overshadow the core tenets of justice and human rights.

The ultimate reform for a broken judicial system is the replacement of activist judicial members and redundancies to ensure judicial reforms and reviews are transparent and public. Some other reforms that have been suggested include enhancements in cultural competence within the justice system, ensuring that legal practitioners, judges, and policymakers have a deep understanding of the cultural contexts in which they operate. The development of community-based interventions that address the root causes of crime within specific cultural settings, focusing on prevention, retribution, and incarceration, which have hundreds of years of validation, compared to rehabilitation and reintegration programs that have failed consistently for over 60 years.

Other policies recommended are the implementation of restorative justice programs that provide a platform for offenders to understand the impact of their actions, make amends, pay-back, community banishment, and culturally accepted reintegration into their communities, within a framework that is transparent so they respect cultural traditions and legal standards.

The interplay between cultural relativism and the justice system in the Northern Territory presents a microcosm of the broader challenges facing multicultural societies. While cultural sensitivity and respect are indispensable, they must be balanced with the imperative to uphold the law and protect the rights and well-being of all citizens. Few things strike at the heart of a community with greater severity than a judiciary that dispenses privileges or advantages rooted in the murky waters of cultural relativism. It is considered a corruption of legal values. The path forward requires recognising the indispensable value of cultural identity and practices while steadfastly upholding the principles of justice, accountability, and the universal protection of human rights. By fostering a dialogue that respects cultural differences without compromising on the fundamental tenets of justice, the legal system in the Northern Territory can evolve to meet the needs of its diverse population.


This evolution calls for a concerted effort from all stakeholders, legal professionals, community leaders, policymakers, and the wider public, to engage in an open and constructive conversation about the role of culture in the legal process. Society has no patience for those who impose equity or, worse, direct discrimination in their rulings. It necessitates a commitment to education, understanding, and empathy, alongside a robust framework that ensures the rights of the individual are always protected, even if that protection is from judicial activists themselves.


From the author.

The opinions and statements are those of Sam Wilks and do not necessarily represent whom Sam Consults or contracts to. Sam Wilks is a skilled and experienced Security Consultant with almost 3 decades of expertise in the fields of Real estate, Security, and the hospitality/gaming industry. His knowledge and practical experience have made him a valuable asset to many organizations looking to enhance their security measures and provide a safe and secure environment for their clients and staff.

1 view0 comments


bottom of page