From Pip's encounters with escaped convicts at the beginning of Great Expectations, to the grotesque courts and prisons in parts II and III, the novel casts the British legal system in a dubious light. Though Mr. Jaggers functions as an upstanding force in Pip's life by checking Pip's extravagance, it is questionable whether his law practice truly serves the law. After all, Mr. Jaggers built his reputation on successfully acquitting a murderer. Likewise Wemmick's separate moral codes—one for the law firm, one for home—highlight the legal mindset's inadequacy in matters of the heart or family. Most distressing of all, some of the novel's most heinous crimes slip right through the legal system.
The law treats Orlick and Compeyson much more lightly than they deserve. A number of characters attempt to make up for the law's blind spots by taking the law into their own hands and seeking revenge, but revenge justice proves just as faulty: Provis' wrestling match with Compeyson on the marsh is futile and lands them both back in prison, Miss Havisham's perverse plot to torture Estella's suitors robs everyone of the chance at love, and, while Orlick may be content with clubbing Mrs. Joe for scolding him, it's clear to the reader that this revenge is deeply horrific, leaving Mrs. Joe handicapped for life.
Ultimately, through Pip's development and that of the characters around him, the novel suggests that the only true and enduring scale of justice is the human conscience. As Pip becomes more compassionate, he inspires empathy among previously stoic characters like Wemmick and Miss Havisham as well. In the end, the novel's most fulfilling portraits of justice are the sincere apologies and forgiveness exchanged between Pip and Miss Havisham and between Pip, Joe and Biddy.
Justice Quotes in Great Expectations
The terrors that had assailed me whenever Mrs. Joe had gone near the pantry, or out of the room, were only to be equaled by the remorse with which my mind dwelt on what my hands hand done. Under the weight of my wicked secret, I pondered whether the Church would be powerful enough to shield me from the vengeance of the terrible young man, if I divulged to that establishment. I conceived the idea that the time when the banns were read and when the clergyman said, "Ye are now to declare it!" would be the time for me to rise and propose a private conference in the vestry.
I thought what terrible good sauce for a dinner my fugitive friend on the marshes was. They had not enjoyed themselves a quarter so much before the entertainment was brightened with the excitement he furnished.
"Let him go free? Let him profit by the means I found out? Let him make a tool of me afresh and again? Once more? No, no, no. If I had died at the bottom there…I'd have held to him with that grip, that you should have been safe to find him in my hold."
…how strange it was that I should be encompassed by all this taint of prison and crime; that, in my childhood out on our lonely marshes on a winter evening, I should have first encountered it; that it should have reappeared on two occasions, starting out like a stain that was faded but not gone; that it should in this new way pervade my fortune and advancement.
"Miss Havisham gives you to him as the greatest slight and injury that could be done to the many far better men who admire you, and to the few who truly love you. Among those few, there may be one who loves you even as dearly, though he has not loved you as long as I. Take him, and I can bear it better for your sake."
"Believe this: when she first came to me, I meant to save her from misery like my own. At first I meant no more…But as she grew and promised to be very beautiful, I gradually did worse, and with my praises, and with my jewels, and with my teachings, and with this figure of myself always before her, a warning to back and point my lessons, I stole her heart away and put ice in its place"…[Miss Havisham] burst out again, What had she done!
"…now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape."