The Harry Potter series has been read, reread, and dissected a million times over, not only by fans like Bayana and myself but by academics and journalists as well. Even with all this scholarship, I have seen few, if any, works that interrogate the justice system in the Wizarding World. Great works of art and Harry Potter is indeed a great work of art, reflect the times while standing the test of time. Criminal Justice Reform has been a hot topic for a long time, in America, we are still grappling with the 1994 crime bill that is a contemporary of the Harry Potter series. However, our current re-reading of the series on #WizardTeam is set in the backdrop of Black Lives Matter and rampant police misconduct. I cannot help but think about the parallels and differences in the justice systems in the Wizarding World and in our world today.
The Application of the Law
We are introduced to Wizarding law in the first installment of the series. There is the acknowledgment of the Ministry of Magic, the illegality of raising dragons as pets, and passing mention of law enforcement beyond Hogwarts. However, starting with the second book we are shown that the application of law is not fairly applied throughout the world. After the first fall of Voldemort we learn that much like our own justice system, the rich and privileged were able to circumvent the law in ways that those without power were denied. The Malfoys escaped punishment by claiming that they were under the Imperius Curse though there was no evidence to support that fact. Conversely, Sirius Black was falsely imprisoned in Azkaban for twelve years without a trial.
However, the best example of the shifting application of law in the Wizarding world is found in Harry Potter himself. In his second year, Harry is given a warning about practicing underage magic after Dobby levitates Aunt Petunia’s pudding to smash over the head of a dinner guest. Fortunately enough for him, he is in the good graces of the Ministry the very next year when he accidentally blows up his Aunt Marge. Though expecting severe punishment, his actions are completely dismissed by the Minister, with no more than a wave of the wrist. When Harry later finds himself on the wrong side of the Minister for insisting the return of Voldemort in his fifth year, he is faced with a hearing in front of the full Wizengamot though his use of magic was clearly in an extreme circumstance, defending himself against two Dementors. As we can see in these different circumstances, privilege or lack thereof seems to be the governing factor in the Ministry, be it class, “Chosen One,” or some other privilege.
Fair Trials, Prison Sentences, and Inhumane Treatment
The history of the Wizarding prison, Azkaban, is bleak, to say the least. Pottermore speaks about the discovery of the island that holds the prison and how it became the infamous prison. Former Minister of Magic, Damocles Rowle, was adamant about turning the island into the prison and harnessing the Dementors as guards, despite the cruel effects they would have on the prisoners. We consider solitary confinement to be inhumane treatment in the Muggle world, imagine then the plight of Sirius Black in solitary confinement and left to the whim of the Dementors.
One of the most egregious examples of the broken justice system in the British Wizarding World is the Ministry’s appalling treatment of Rubeus Hagrid. He is first falsely accused at the age of 13 by a young Tom Riddle for opening the Chamber of Secrets and though it is not actually proven it is enough to get him expelled from Hogwarts and is widely believed for over fifty years. This stain on his record is then used to justify his false imprisonment, without so much as a show trial when the Chamber is reopened, fifty years later. The Hogwarts-to-Azkaban pipeline is quite strong for witches and wizards without powerful connections. Worse than this, Hagrid is given no timeframe for release, only promised that if the real culprit is caught he will be released with a full apology from the Ministry. This full apology will not save Hagrid from the horrors of Azkaban nor will it repair his already damaged reputation between witches and wizards who assume that his imprisonment is a confirmation of his guilt.
The imprisonment of innocent people is not definitive proof of a broken justice system, as even the most well-intentioned people make mistakes. However, in the Wizarding world, there is a disturbing lack of a systematic process that is applied to everyone universally. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire we see the trial of Barty Crouch Jr., being used as a pretense for his father to make an example of him. Not only is he subject to a swift sentencing, he is sentenced by someone with a glaring conflict of interest. Bartemius Crouch Sr uses his influence not only to impose a harsh sentence on his son but also to spare him from that sentence in secret and irrevocably harmed innocent people in the process.
Unlike Sirius Black, Barty Crouch, Jr. was fortunate to at least be granted a trial, as unfair as it was. Shortly after his confrontation with Peter Pettigrew, Sirius was sentenced to Azkaban by Barty Crouch Sr. and Albus Dumbledore without a trial. Sirius spent the next twelve years in solitary confinement, though there was no evidence to prove his guilt. This presumption of guilt is also applied to Stan Shunpike in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Under a different Minister, this time Rufus Scrimgeour, Stanley, who has a history of exaggeration, is overheard claiming to know secret plans of the Death Eaters. Though it is possible he is under the Imperius Curse as Harry strongly believes, the report in The Daily Prophet is far less kind to young Mr. Shunpike. Again, there is no mention of a trial and interrogation of Shunpike could not prove he had any inside knowledge of the Death Eaters plans.
There also seems to be no recourse to prove someone’s innocence, despite Peter Pettigrew confession in front of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Remus Lupin. Once he escaped, there was not enough proof to clear Sirius Black of the charge of murdering Peter and 12 Muggles. Though innocent, Sirius spends the majority of his time outside of Azkaban on the run or confined to Number 12 Grimmauld Place though he is an innocent man. Alternatively, only a letter from Dumbledore explaining about the diary is enough to release Hagrid, though there is a similar lack of evidence once the diary is destroyed.
Rampant Misconduct by Government Officials
From Dolores Umbridge to the Dementors, misconduct, to varying degrees, is rampant within the Ministry of Magic. From Umbridge and Bartemius Crouch Sr.’s repeated use of abusive methods of punishment to the Dementors attacking free citizens without cause (police brutality anyone?), one can reasonably assume that holding certain positions of power within the Ministry is carte blanche to committing crimes without recourse. The Minister himself is guilty of this when he appoints Dolores Umbridge as High Inquisitor and starts to issue decrees to silence his detractors.
We also see that Death Eaters like Lucius Malfoy and Yaxley are able to gain great power within the Ministry whether they hold an official position or not. These incursions make it easy for Voldemort to infiltrate and take over the Ministry within a year of his return to power. One can reasonably assume that only a very weak or corrupt organization would not be able to withstand the hostile takeover by a dictator within a year. Though Yaxley proclaims the difficulty it took to place Pius Thicknesse, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, under the Imperius Curse, it is very shortly after Thicknesse that he begins to enslave other heads of Magical departments with the Imperius Curse to do Voldemort’s bidding.
There are many questions that surround the governing structure of the Ministry of Magic, from how Ministers are elected to the democratic representation of the Wizengamot, but the most galling questions surround the justice system. If your treatment by the government changes with your popularity, as it does for Harry, or is subject to the sway of public opinion, in the case of Hagrid, how can a citizen make moral choices with regards to their behavior and the repercussions that incur? Abraham Lincoln once famously suspended the right to defend oneself in court (habeas corpus) in a time of war, arguing that “the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion and invasion the public safety may require it.” We have seen throughout history that carving out exceptions to the rights and protections of your citizens in times of war, is a dangerous and slippery slope. The magical community may think themselves above Muggles, but as shown in the Harry Potter series, this imbalanced method of justice is a universal plight.