Guidance

Procedural justice

A summary of evidence about how procedural justice influences people’s respect for, and compliance with, rules and authority, and how prisons and probation can promote it.

Procedural justice is the degree to which someone perceives people in authority to apply processes or make decisions about them in a fair and just way.

According to procedural justice theory, if people feel they are treated in a procedurally just way, they view people in authority as more legitimate and they respect them more. They are more likely to comply with the law and the authority’s decisions. This is true even if the outcome of the decision or process is unfavourable or inconvenient.

There are four key principles of procedural justice:

  • treating people with respect and dignity
  • making unbiased decisions and interpreting and applying rules consistently and transparently
  • giving people a voice and hearing their concerns and experiences
  • showing and encouraging trust by being sincere, caring and authentic, and trying to do what is right for everyone

Why is procedural justice important?

Robust international research (including England and Wales) in different settings shows the importance of procedural justice influencing people’s respect for, and compliance with, rules and authority. Research also shows the positive effect of procedural justice in prison and probation settings. This demonstrates why people in prison and probation need to be treated in procedurally just ways by those in authority.

For prisons

Research shows that, for prisoners, more positive perceptions of procedural justice predict:

  • lower levels of prison rule-breaking and misconduct (including violence)
  • better emotional well-being and mental health outcomes and
  • lower rates of future reoffending1

Prisoners may disengage with authority figures and become violent and hostile if they do not feel their management in prison processes is procedurally just. In England and Wales, research into prisoners’ experiences has shown some processes can be perceived as procedurally unjust, such as the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme, Offender Management and recall to prison from the community.

Some staff characteristics appear related to prisoners’ perceptions of procedural justice. Prisoners report more positive procedural justice perceptions in units:

  • with more female staff
  • more staff who support rehabilitation
  • where there are higher staff-prisoner ratios

Staff perceptions of procedural justice also relate to a range of outcomes. This is how staff perceive they are treated by management (not how staff perceive prisoners to be treated).

More positive perceptions are associated with:

  • higher life and job satisfaction ratings
  • greater job commitment
  • lower burnout rates and stress levels
  • being more supportive of prisoner rehabilitation (and less supportive of punishment)
  • feeling safer at work

A recent UK study2 found a significant relationship between more positive prisoner perceptions and more positive staff perceptions. So, in places where staff feel treated in a procedurally just way, so too do the people in their care.

For probation

Recent research3 shows that perceptions of procedural justice for people managed in the community are also important. Better perceptions relate to:

  • significantly greater compliance
  • fewer rule violations
  • less reoffending while under supervision in the community

What can be done to promote procedural justice in practice?

Research in other settings show how perceptions of procedural justice and outcomes have been improved. These include:

  • personalised messages using the person’s name and written with a specific intention to meet procedural justice requirements
  • offering people the chance to ask questions and responding to what they say
  • explaining how processes work and why they are like they are - this can be by written, verbal explanations, and graphics
  • anticipating frequently asked questions
  • explaining how decisions are made before a procedure starts and what is considered
  • making sure people have a chance to ‘tell their story’
  • summarising and paraphrasing what people say to assure them they have been heard
  • everyone introducing themselves at the start of meetings, making eye contact and using a respectful tone, using people’s names as much as possible
  • scripting the start of formal processes and meetings to give everyone a consistent message about its purpose and value
  • explaining reasons behind decisions (especially if it is not in the person’s favour)
  • making a conscious effort to be approachable and not intimidating
  • encouraging people in their efforts to change and succeed
  • consulting with staff and people living in prison or on probation, asking how procedures and their treatment by authority figures could be developed - this should reveal specific actions that might have the most impact

What might make people feel that their treatment is not procedurally just?

  • when procedures, or use of authority, feels automatic, with little explanation, personal engagement or collaboration
  • when individuals’ contributions are asked for but don’t appear to be considered or factored into decisions or outcomes
  • when one person’s ‘voice’ is perceived to be more important than the voice of another, for example, the word of staff being more important than the word of prisoners, or that of a senior manager over someone at a lower grade
  • when procedures which impact people (especially involving punishment or reward) are seen as a ‘tick box exercise’
  • when the system uses punishment more than reward
  • when reasons for decisions are superficial or lead to more questions
  • when it’s not clear why a process exists, or why a rule exists

References

  1. Beijersbergen, K. A., Dirkzwager, A. J. E., & Nieuwbeerta, P. (2016). Reoffending after release: does procedural justice during imprisonment matter? Criminal Justice and Behavior, 43, 63-82.

  2. Fitzalan Howard, F., & Wakeling, H. (2019). Prisoner and staff perceptions of procedural justice in English and Welsh prisons Study of procedural justice perceptions of prisoners and prison staff, and the relationship between these perceptions and outcomes. London: HMPPS.

  3. Blasko, B., & Taxman, F. (2018). Development and predictive utility of a PJ measure for use in community settings. Criminal Justice & Behavior, doi.org/10.1177/00938548177492. Gladfelter, A. S., Lantz, B., & Ruback, R. B. (2018). Beyond Ability to Pay: Procedural Justice and Offender Compliance With Restitution Orders. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 62(13), 4314-4331

Further reading

Jackson, J., Tyler, T. R., Bradford, B., Taylor, D., & Shiner, M. (2010). Legitimacy and procedural justice in prisons Prison Service Journal, 191, 4-10.

Tyler, T. R. (2003). Procedural justice, legitimacy, and the effective rule of law. Crime and justice 30, 283-357.

The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice (US) Procedural Justice Resources

Procedural Justice Trust and Institutional Legitimacy

Procedural fairness in courts Criminal Justice Alliance policy briefing (2014)

This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 17 June 2019