What Is Procedural Justice?

Illustration of the four "pillars" of procedural justice, depicted as literal pillars
The four pillars of fairness in procedural justice.

Hugo Lin/ThoughtCo

Procedural justice is the idea of fairness in the processes used to resolve disputes, and how people’s perception of fairness is impacted not only by the result of their experiences but also by the quality of their experiences. As a fundamental aspect of conflict resolution, procedural justice theory has been applied in a wide variety of settings, including due process in the U.S. criminal justice system, supervisor-employee relations, and disputes in educational settings. In the context of criminal justice, most procedural justice research has focused on interactions between citizens, the police, and the court system. The aspects and application of procedural justice are areas of study in social psychology, sociology, and organizational psychology. 

Key Takeaways: Procedural Justice

  • Procedural justice concerns fairness in the dispute settlement processes used by those in positions of authority to reach specific outcomes or decisions. 
  • Processes of procedural justice may apply in a variety of settings, including the court system, the workplace, education, and the government. 
  • A perception of fairness is the fundamental aspect of procedural justice. 
  • The four key principles, or “pillars,” or fairness in procedural justice are voice, respect, neutrality, and trustworthiness. 
  • Fairness in the processes of procedural justice is a key in building trust and respect between police and the communities they serve.

Definition and Context 

Procedural justice is more specifically defined as the fairness of dispute settlement processes used by those in positions of authority to reach specific outcomes or decisions. 

Concerning the fairness and the transparency of the processes by which decisions are made, procedural justice can be contrasted to distributive justice, retributive justice, and restorative justice. 

Distributive justice is concerned with processes involved in the fair and equitable distribution of resources and burdens among diverse members of a community. In contrast to procedural justice, which is concerned with the fair administration of laws or rules, distributive justice concentrates more on economic outcomes, such as equal pay for work of equal value.

Retributive justice is a response to criminal behavior that focuses on the fair punishment of lawbreakers and the compensation of crime victims. In general, the severity of the punishment is considered to be fair when it is proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.

Restorative justice, also known as corrective justice, focuses on restitution made by lawbreakers and the resolution of the issues arising from a crime in which victims, offenders, and the community are brought together to restore the harmony between the parties. Restorative justice often includes direct mediation and conflict resolution between offenders, their victims and families, and the community.

In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, American morality and political philosopher John Rawls identified three concepts of procedural justice—perfect procedural justice, imperfect procedural justice, and pure procedural justice.

Perfect procedural justice provides an independent criterion for what constitutes fair or just outcomes, along with a procedure designed to guarantee that fair outcomes will be achieved.

Imperfect procedural justice, while also providing an independent criterion for a fair outcome, provides no method for ensuring that the fair outcome will be achieved. Rawls’s example here is a criminal trial. The just outcome is for the guilty to be convicted and the innocent or not guilty to be acquitted, but there is no set of institutional procedures ensuring that this result is always to be reached.

Pure procedural justice describes situations in which there is no criterion for what constitutes a fair outcome other than the procedure itself. Rawls’s illustration of pure procedural justice is a lottery. In a lottery, no particular outcome is considered “fair” as such—one person or another might win fairly. What makes an outcome just is that the procedure is fairly conducted, as each lottery ticket has an equal chance of winning. 

The Importance of Fairness 

The importance of the concept of fairness in the processes of procedural justice cannot be understated. Extensive research has shown that when people make overall judgments about the legitimacy of those in positions of authority, they are more concerned about procedural fairness—how fairly they were treated—than they are about the outcome of the encounter. In practical terms, even people who receive a traffic ticket or “lose” their case in court are more likely to rate the system favorably when they feel that the outcome was arrived at fairly.

In 1976, American professor of psychology Gerald S. Leventhal sought to explain how individuals develop their perceptions of the fairness of procedures used in allocating rewards, punishments, or resources in a given dispute venue, whether a courtroom, classroom, workplace, or another context. Leventhal suggested seven structural components and six rules of justice by which the fairness of dispute settlement procedures could be evaluated. The seven types of structural components are the selection of authorities, setting of ground rules, gathering of information, the structure of decision, appeals, safeguards, and mechanisms for change. The six rules of justice are consistency, suppression of bias, accuracy, the ability to correct errors, equal representation, and ethicality. These became widely used and referenced, and known as "Leventhal's Rules."

Allowing all parties involved to be heard before a decision is made is considered to be an indispensable step in a deliberative process that would be considered to have been procedurally fair. Some theories of procedural justice hold that fairness in dispute resolution procedures leads to more equitable outcomes, even if the requirements of distributive or restorative justice are not subsequently met. Higher quality interpersonal interactions often found in the procedural justice process have been shown to greatly influence the perception of fairness to the parties involved in conflict resolution settings.

In the context of criminal justice, much research on the application of procedural justice has focused on the concept of fairness during interactions between police and citizens. Decades of such research have shown that fairness in the processes of procedural justice is essential in building trust and increasing the legitimacy of law enforcement authorities within the communities they serve. As such, it has paramount implications for both public safety and police officers’ effectiveness in producing mutually desired results in their encounters with citizens.  

While highly publicized abuses of authority and unjustified use of deadly force by police officers fuel public doubt in the fairness in the processes of procedural justice, less publicized, day-to-day interactions between police and citizens also influence people’s long-term attitudes toward the system. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, as the body of research on procedural justice continues to grow, it becomes increasingly evident that through training, the concept of fairness in such interactions can take hold at both the individual officer and departmental level. By laying the groundwork for legitimacy, fairness in procedural justice can further law enforcement agencies’ efforts to improve strained community relationships. 

Police officers are legally authorized to perform their duties and are further protected in the performance of those duties by the controversial judicially created legal principle of qualified immunity. In the context of procedural justice, however, legitimacy is measured by the extent to which law enforcement agencies and their officers are perceived by the public as being morally just, honest, and worthy of trust and confidence. Perceptions of legitimacy improve compliance and cooperation through improved attitudes toward police. As a result, fairness in procedural justice serves as a powerful tool in improving public safety. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, today’s police departments appear to be succeeding at achieving a perception of legitimacy within the communities they serve, at least by the measure of crime rates. Violent crime rates nationwide are half what they were two decades ago, and many jurisdictions are experiencing record-low crime rates not seen since the 1960s. In addition, there are indications that a variety of types of wrongful police behaviors, ranging from corruption to unlawful use of lethal force, are at lower levels today than in the past.

Within the court system, extensive research has shown that when defendants and litigants perceive the court process to be fair, they are more likely to comply with court orders—and regardless of whether they “win” or “lose” their case—obey the law in the future. Increasingly, national judicial organizations have recognized the importance of promoting procedural fairness. In 2013, the U.S. Conference of Chief Justices along with the Conference of State Court Administrators adopted a resolution encouraging state court leaders to promote the implementation of principles of procedural fairness; a resolution in support of implementing clear communications and streamlined procedures in the courts; and a resolution encouraging leadership to promote equal justice. Especially in the case of the court system, the perceived fairness of procedural justice depends on the procedure producing correct outcomes. In a criminal trial, for example, correct outcomes would be the conviction of the guilty and the acquittal of the innocent.

Outside the venue of criminal justice and the courts, procedural fairness applies to everyday administrative processes, such as decisions to cancel professional licenses or benefits; to discipline an employee or student; to impose a penalty, or to publish a report that may damage a person’s reputation.

As in the criminal courts, a critical part of governmental administrative procedural fairness is the “hearing rule.” Fairness demands that a person subject to administrative action be fully informed of the case, be met face-to-face, and be given the chance to reply before a government agency makes a decision that negatively affects a right, an existing interest, or a legitimate expectation which they hold. Put simply, hearing the other side of the story is critical to fair rulings.

In the private sector workplace, procedural justice affects how decisions regarding individual employees are made and organization-wide policies are established. It operates on the assumption that managers will make the fairest and most respectful decisions. Procedural justice in the workplace is also concerned about creating and implementing policies and procedures that take all perspectives and concerns into consideration. When managers are required to make rulings, procedural justice suggests that their decisions be will be based on facts and appropriate for the actions. When policies are created, procedural justice demands that they must be fair to everyone in the organization, regardless of race, gender, age, position, education, or training.

The use of procedural justice in the workplace helps management ensure employees that they are valued members of the organization. As a subcomponent of organizational justice, procedural justice is a vital communication tool in the workplace because it demonstrates fair procedures, gives employees fair treatment, and allows them to have more input in dispute settlement and performance appraisal processes.

As in the criminal courts, a critical part of governmental administrative procedural fairness is the “hearing rule.” Fairness demands that a person subject to administrative action be fully informed of the details of the case, be met face-to-face, and be given the chance to reply before a government agency makes a decision that negatively affects their rights, an existing interest, or a legitimate expectation which they hold. Put simply, hearing the other side of the story is critical to fair rulings.

Key Factors 

In all venues where it is applied, procedural justice addresses the idea of fair processes, and how people’s perception of fairness is strongly impacted not only by the outcomes of their encounters with authorities but also by the quality of those encounters.

Extensive research and experience show that people's perceptions of procedurally just encounters are based on four key principles, or “pillars,” of their interactions with legal authorities:

  • Voice: Individuals involved are allowed to express their concerns and take part in the decision-making processes by telling their side of the story.
  • Respect: All individuals are treated with dignity and respect.
  • Neutrality: Decisions are unbiased and guided by consistent, transparent, and logical reasoning.
  • Trustworthiness: Those in authority convey trustworthy motives and concern about how their decisions will impact the well-being of those involved.

However, these four pillars of procedural justice cannot stand alone. Instead, they must support one another. The decision-making process also requires transparency and openness. To the extent possible, decisions and the reasoning behind them should be openly and fully explained. Procedural justice also demands that decision-making must be guided by impartiality—ensuring that decisions, and ultimately the outcomes—are not influenced by biases. 

In the most publicly visible venue of policing, embracing the four pillars of procedural justice has been shown to promote positive organizational change, bolster better relations with the community, and enhance the safety of both officers and civilians. 

However, the concept of procedural justice remains largely at odds with traditional enforcement-focused policing, which typically assumes that compliance depends mainly on emphasizing to the public the consequences—typically imprisonment—of failing to obey the law. Procedurally just policing, in contrast, emphasizes values shared by the police and the communities they serve—values based on an agreement as to what social order is and how it should be maintained. In this manner, procedurally just policing encourages collaborative, voluntary maintenance of safe, clean, and law-abiding communities where the so-called “broken windows” effect that perpetuates crime is discouraged by the residents themselves. When treated as equals by the police, people are more likely to play an active role in keeping their communities safe.

While diminishing crime rates over the past several decades may be the result of law advances in criminology techniques and policy capability, public trust in the police has remained relatively stable while declining in some communities of color. 

According to a Gallup survey, public confidence in the police hit a national 22-year low in 2015, with 52% of Americans expressing confidence, improving to 56% in 2016. While about 10% of Americans reported having no confidence in their local police department, more than 25% of Black Americans reported having no confidence, highlighting a racial gap in public attitudes toward police that might be narrowed by the more widespread adoption of the four procedural justice principles by police departments. 

Published in 2015, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing report declared that a positive relationship between law enforcement and civilians is the “key to the stability of our communities, the integrity of our criminal justice system, and the safe and effective delivery of policing services.” In hopes of addressing gaps in community trust, numerous legal scholars, policymakers, and law enforcement practitioners have recommended employing procedural justice as a means of increasing the extent to which civilians view police officers as fair and just enforcers of the law, with whom they are willing to cooperate.


  • Rawls, John (1971). “A Theory of Justice.” Belknap Press, September 30, 1999, ISBN-10: ‎0674000781.
  • Gold, Emily. “The Case for Procedural Justice: Fairness as a Crime Prevention Tool.” US Department of Justice, COPS Newsletter, September 2013, https://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/09-2013/fairness_as_a_crime_prevention_tool.asp.
  • Lind, Allen E. and Tyler, Tom. “The Social Psychology of Procedural Justice.” Springer, May 25, 2013, ISBN-10: ‎1489921176.
  • Leventhal, Gerald S. “What Should Be Done with Equity Theory? New Approaches to the Study of Fairness in Social Relationships.” September 1976, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED142463.pdf.
  • Newport, Frank. “U.S. Confidence in Police Recovers From Last Year's Low.” Gallup, June 14, 2016, https://news.gallup.com/poll/192701/confidence-police-recovers-last-year-low.aspx.
  • Tyler, Tom R. “Why People Obey the Law.” Princeton University Press; Revised edition (March 1, 2006), ISBN-10: 0691126739.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Procedural Justice?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 27, 2022, thoughtco.com/what-is-procedural-justice-5225379. Longley, Robert. (2022, April 27). What Is Procedural Justice? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-procedural-justice-5225379 Longley, Robert. "What Is Procedural Justice?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-procedural-justice-5225379 (accessed June 8, 2023).