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Distributive Justice: Concept and Application in various Legal Systems

“A concept that addresses the ownership of goods in a society.”

Societies are rarely, if ever, what they should be when weighed from the eyes of morality and rationality. If seen from a wider perspective, this failure of society is more or less the result of improper education that is imparted to the people in general. But to some extent the failure of societies to live up to the sense of morality can also be attributed to moral philosophers that are expected to eloquently spread and articulate the idea and principles of morality. As a result, many people claim to be committed to the ideals of justice, fairness, and social welfare, but at the same time, they are seen endorsing such acts that are inconsistent with those ideals. There is a lack of clear and straight-forward deduction of these morally correct principles, hence the inconsistencies and confusion surrounding it.

For societies to flourish securely and carrying forward all the communities, there is a need for effective collaboration of people and coordination of resources and enterprises to reach this vision. This ensemble of conditions to enhance or provide opportunities to people of a community is often termed as ‘common good’. This term is used frequently in formulating the general principle of justice. Equality is treated as a vital element in the fundamental notion of Distributive Justice. Every person of the community has an equal right of consideration when it comes to distribution.

This is a moral relevance of the ‘formal’ principle of justice: ‘Treat like cases alike’.

Distributive Justice is all about the distribution and allocation of common goods and common burdens.[1] These benefits and liabilities cover all dimensions of social life. It includes income, political power, education, taxes, work obligations, shelter, healthcare, military service, community assignments, and religious activities. Thus, many times the concept of justice is invoked regarding the minimum wage legislation, affirmative action policies, public education, military conscription, litigation, as well as with redistributive policies such as welfare, medical care, aid to the developing world, progressive income taxes and inheritance taxes.[2] The resources of the community cannot be said to belong to any individual but are to be distributed according to the judgment of what is in the best interest of the people. The political institutions of the State are only fit to take such critical decisions. The principles of equity, equality, and social need are most relevant in the context of distributive justice.[3]

The prime objective of justice is not equality but common good i.e., prospering of all the members of the community. The goal of flourishing the society will not be achieved by treating everyone identically but by allotting them with appropriate roles, opportunities, and resources.

John Rawle’s major work, A Theory of Justice, in 1971, attracted the modern interest in the concept of justice.[4] Rawls presents a hypothetical original position in which people are behind a “veil of ignorance” of their places/status in society. Under these conditions, Rawls claims that people would unanimously choose a particular conception of justice.[5] The greatest attention has been paid to his so-called difference principle, according to which all goods are distributed equallys unless an unequal distribution is to the advantage of the least favoured.[6]

Distributive Justice in Legal System

The idea of a fair distribution of resources is generally traced back to concepts of human rights, human dignity, and the common good. It is grounded on the basis that civilization owes its individual members in equal proportion. Government’s time to time formulate and alter laws and regulations according to the situation affecting the distribution of economic benefits and burdens in their societies. Almost all changes, from the standard tax and industry laws to divorce laws have some distributive effect, and, as a result, different societies have different distributions.

The Indian context has a strange drift from the Western line of thought. The average Indian is ignorant of his rights and does not really bother much with social policies of justice. He is satisfied if he sees justice being done in an acceptable manner of society, though tinged by shades of religion and divine intervention.[7]

This principle is sometimes criticized because it does not show any differences in productive contributions or distinguish between real needs and manifested needs.[8] This is where reservation policies in India become extremely pertinent. India’s policy on reservation is an audacious attempt to heal the past injustices caused to the lower levels of India's four-tier caste hierarchy. [9]

The Mandal Report of 1980 suggested to reserve an additional 27% of government positions for Other Backward Classes for their fast upliftment.

Amidst violent protests, the Supreme Court[10] validated this plan.[11]The judgements which originate from the Public Interest Litigation also strengthens the idea of distributive justice.[12]Also, The Supreme Court’s verdicts on various environmental issues highlights its positive attitude to establish this concept firmly in India by the application of ‘Polluter Pays Principle’[13] or the ‘Public Trust Doctrine’[14].

The case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[15] which attracted a humongous amount of attention on the concepts of ‘procedure established by law’ and ‘due process of law’ has its source from distributive justice only. After that case, there was a remarkable shift in the attitude of the judiciary. Even if there is some procedure that has been established by some statute or passed by the legislature, the justice will be done keeping in mind the ‘due process of law’, taking us away from the judgement of A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras.[16] Laws and regulations passed by the Supreme Court is binding on all the courts. But it some cases, it is seen that the Supreme Court, if needed reverse its own decision.[17] Thus, where the question of public good comes and fairness is to be seen, or the need for distribution of the rights and responsibilities come, Supreme Court has always been in favour of the public, or rather, public good.


The recent years have witnessed a remarkable growth in the emphasis and attention paid to the distributive effects of economic development policies. All these three principles of equity, equality, and social need which are most relevant in the context of distributive justice are duly followed in many fields, especially in the legal field. These principles appeal to the notion that fair treatment is a matter of giving people what they deserve, regardless of the same outcome. It is much more useful, if implemented on a long-term basis. Human behaviour is the first target of moral assessment and righteousness. The external facts and institutions are secondary, though essential. Be it poverty, education, development, peace talks, every important aspect in today’s world can be seen in the light of Distributive Justice. The need of today is to take significant steps to help rise and flourish our society and make it a better place to live.

‘Satyameva Jayate’- this one phrase highlights the essence of the visions and ideals of the judicial system in India. Therefore, we must have equality of treatment and opportunity in India. We shouldn’t get deviated by the declaration that there may not be equality of results.

[1] Manu Mishra and & Udita Malviya, Distributive Justice & Its Relevance in Contemporary Times, Manupatra.com, 1-2. [2] Dr. P. O. O. Ottuh & Rev. (Dr.) J. A. Ottuh & Dr. (Mrs) V. O. Aitufe, Distributive Justice and Inclusive Society: Equitable Distribution of Wealth, European Scientific Journal, (2014), Vol.10, No.23 ISSN: 1857 – 7881 (Print) e - ISSN 1857- 7431, 200-201. [3] Rashmi Raman & Nisha Venkataraman, Grafting Faith- Legal Aid Services in India, 3rd International Conference on Therapeutic Jurisprudence (2006). [4] John Rawls, Theory of Justice, 1971. [5] Id. [6] Supra note (2) [7] Rashmi Raman & Nisha Venkataraman, Grafting Faith- Legal Aid Services in India, 3rd International Conference on Therapeutic Jurisprudence (2006). [8] Robert Folger, Blair H. Sheppard and Robert T. Buttram, Equity, Equality, and Need: Three Faces of Social Justice, in Conflict, Cooperation, and Justice, 262 (Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, San Francisco, 1995). [9] State of Madras v. Champakam Dorairajan, AIR 1951 SC 226 (invalidating under Article 15 quotas for various castes and non-Hindus for admission to state institutions of higher education). [10] Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, 1992 Supp (3) SCC 217. [11] 3 Priya Sridharan, Representations of Disadvantage: Evolving Definitions of Disadvantage in India's Reservation Policy, Asian Law Journal (1999). [12] M.C. Mehta Vs Union of India, AIR 1988 SC 1037. [13] M.C. Mehta v. UOI, AIR 1987 SC 1086; Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. UOI, (1996) 3 SCC 212; Vellore Citizen’s Welfare Forum v. UOI, (1996) 5 SCC 647; Rio Declaration, Principle 16, 1992. [14]7 M.C. Mehta v. Kamalnath, (1997) 1 SCC (736); K.M. Chinappa v. UOI, AIR 2003 SC 724. [15]Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India AIR 1978 SC 597: (1978) 1 SCC 248. [16] A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras AIR 1950 SC 27. [17] Constitution of India, Article 141; I.C. Golaknath v. State of Punjab, AIR 1967 SC 164.

Contributed by: Shourya Shubham (CNLU)


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