This is the very first piece I ever wrote for the Law magazine at uni. "Lorraine looks at the Justice System in the Seven Kingdoms"
I’m writing an article about how Game of Thrones (GoT) is synonymous to studying law. I utter this line and the standard reaction I receive is an incredulous stare that says, “you’re a crazy fangirl reading too much into it”. How can GoT possibly have anything to do with law? Now, although I have no intention of releasing my precious mantle as crazy fangirl, through exploring the justice system and hierarchies inherent in that world, I do intend to demonstrate that, in fact, it has much to do with law.
In the English Legal System (ELS), there is a well-defined hierarchy of courts and power.
At the most basic level Law is a system of rules, which can include Acts of Parliament, cases, culture and social norms. Its purpose is to aid dispute resolution, set out public, political and social policies and order, in order to govern relations between the people.
Similarly, within the Seven Kingdoms, there are a number of customs and policies which shape their world.
Within any kingdom it is always important to know who the ultimate sovereign is and in the United Kingdom there is a clear hierarchy. Without wanting to sound like your public lecture reading, concisely, the Monarch acts as the head of state and the PM as the head of government. Parliament is the legislative power composed of two houses, The House of Commons and The House of Lords. Parliament’s role is to exercise executive power over the kingdom on behalf of and by the consent of the Monarch along with the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The judiciary system that applies and interprets the law in the name of the state remains independent of the executive and legislature. And of course the highest court in the land is the Supreme Court. The EELS are slimy elongated fish because you read that acronym wrong. By contrast, the ELS has taken almost 1000 years to develop to this point.
Similarly in Westeros, or at least in the Seven Kingdoms, the customs and legal codes have developed over several thousand years, with a similar frame of hierarchy arising. For example, the King sitting on the Iron Throne has the final authority and acts in a similar capacity to the Supreme Court. The Master of Laws acts as his advisor for the administration of justice in almost the same way that Parliament and the Government does for the Monarch.
The Justice system within the Several Kingdoms is a feudal system of local government much like that of medieval Britain, which contrasts our modern democracy. Lords have judicial power granted by the King to administer justice within their domains. They keep the peace, hear petitions and mete out justice and punishments. This is portrayed in the first GoT TV episode where Ned Stark beheads a traitor for abandoning his position as a Night’s Watchman. We can potentially see this as a parallel to our current devolution settlement, with Ned Stark as Warden in the North acting a slightly sexier Alex Salmond. Lords also have the power to entrust tasks to their sworn lords, landed knights and bailiffs who help them in their role. If the lord is unable to pass a sentence he will sometimes leave it to the lord of the great house holding dominion of that area. In the local courts, the Lord or his officers hold power and listen to petitions and accusations, deciding the outcome based on evidence and law. As in our system, their law is based on local customs (conventions).
Within the Seven Kingdoms the administration of justice for crime greatly depends on where in the hierarchy of the social order the defendant is and to which family he belongs. Most crimes are usually paid for through fines (or the loss of limbs), so within GoT the richer and more noble the wrongdoer, the higher chance of getting off lightly. This is because if they are of high status and command, influence and power, they are afforded more rights by the law, such as a right to trial and leniency in their actions. Therefore, unlike in our system, justice isn’t always ‘just’ or fair. More often than not it’s easier to keep the peace by turning a blind eye: as evidenced by the butcher’s boy being killed when Prince Joffrey gets hurt, because Arya Stark cannot be punished severely for hurting him. Arya Stark escapes punishment simply because she is Ned Stark’s daughter.
In terms of sentencing, as in our legal system, the accused and witnesses swear an oath of honesty before the trial. Sometimes, seven judges may be appointed to try a case, and if a woman is accused, three of them might be women in order to represent the Mother, Maiden, and Crone (three faces of the seven faced god they believe in). There are, however, alternatives; Highborns may opt for trial by combat. Taking the Black to join the Night’s Watch can be another option for a criminal (except for women), where one’s crimes are forgiven and they’re exiled to protect The Wall.
Unlike Westeros, the punishment for treason and oath-breaking in the UK is no longer death. In fact, most of the punishments are certainly outlawed nowadays. Thieves may no longer lose hands, or tongues, people cannot be mutilated for assault, castrated for rape or flogged for minor offences. These punishments are usually reserved for the lower classes.
In contrast, in the ELS, the courts are keen to ensure the administration of justice is seen to be a fair, consistent and an equal system, so it shouldn’t matter how rich or poor you are, (although with the recent change in legal aid this could be debated).
Therefore, it’s clear that legal analyses of Game of Thrones have proved both the relevance of a legal analysis of the fantasy world, but also the frightening degree to my fandom. The justice system of the Seven Kingdoms clearly comes off as a less developed, yet more brutal and system ripe for corruption, evidenced by the intrigue and conflict we see throughout the series. However, this less just and efficient system than the ELS does not detract from the degree to which I would still love to live in the GoT world. Because, at the end of the day, I’m still going to prefer to have as my leader (and be more attracted to) a man who wields a sword of Valaryian Steel, as opposed to one who floppily wields a flag at the Wimbledon Grand Final. No choice, for me at least.