Justice delayed is justice denied

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"Justice delayed is justice denied" is a legal maxim meaning that if legal redress is available for a party that has suffered some injury, but is not forthcoming in a timely fashion, it is effectively the same as having no redress at all. This principle is the basis for the right to a speedy trial and similar rights which are meant to expedite the legal system, because it is unfair for the injured party to have to sustain the injury with little hope for resolution. The phrase has become a rallying cry for legal reformers who view courts or governments as acting too slowly in resolving legal issues either because the existing system is too complex or overburdened, or because the issue or party in question lacks political favour.


There are conflicting accounts of who first noted the phrase. According to Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, it is attributable to William Ewart Gladstone, but such attribution was not verifiable.[1] Alternatively, it may be attributed to William Penn in the form "to delay Justice is Injustice".[2]

Mentions of justice delayed and denied are found in the Pirkei Avot 5:7, a section of the Mishnah (1st century BCE – 2nd century CE): "Our Rabbis taught: ...The sword comes into the world, because of justice delayed and justice denied...",[3] and the Magna Carta of 1215, clause 40 of which reads, "To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice." Nachmanides understands the advice given by Jethro (Bible) in Exodus 18:22, to judge the people at all times, as suggesting that Israel needed more judges because potential litigants would otherwise suffer injustice due to their inability to find a judge to hear their case.

Martin Luther King, Jr., used the phrase in the form "justice too long delayed is justice denied" in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail", smuggled out of jail in 1963, ascribing it to a "distinguished jurist of yesterday".

As Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger noted in an address to the American Bar Association in 1970: "A sense of confidence in the courts is essential to maintain the fabric of ordered liberty for a free people and three things could destroy that confidence and do incalculable damage to society: that people come to believe that inefficiency and delay will drain even a just judgment of its value; that people who have long been exploited in the smaller transactions of daily life come to believe that courts cannot vindicate their legal rights from fraud and over-reaching; that people come to believe the law – in the larger sense – cannot fulfill its primary function to protect them and their families in their homes, at their work, and on the public streets."[4]

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  1. ^ Suzy Platt (ed.). Entry 954. William Ewart Gladstone (1809–98). Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service. Library of Congress, 1989. (Attributed to William E. Gladstone. — Laurence J. Peter, Peter’s Quotations, p. 276 (1977). Unverified.)
  2. ^ Penn, William (1693), Some Fruits of Solitude, Headley, 1905, p. 86.
  3. ^ 10 Minutes of Torah. Ethical Teachings Selections from Pirkei Avot. http://tmt.urj.net/archives/4jewishethics/052605.htm Retrieved 26 March 2013
  4. ^ Burger, "What's Wrong With the Courts: The Chief Justice Speaks Out", U.S. News & World Report (vol. 69, No. 8, Aug. 24, 1970) 68, 71 (address to ABA meeting, Aug. 10, 1970).