Will had been a hunter before he joined the Night's Watch. Well, a poacher in truth. Mallister freeriders had caught him red-handed in the Mallisters' own woods, skinning one of the Mallisters' own bucks, and it had been a choice of putting on the black or losing a hand. (1 Prologue.19)
It's not often that you read about someone's hands being cut off as a form of punishment (Lindsay Lohan sure would be in trouble). But the Prologue reminds us that the system of justice in play in this novel is something much older.
He remembered the angry words they had exchanged when Tywin Lannister had presented Robert with the corpses of Rhaegar's wife and children as a token of fealty. Ned had named that murder; Robert called it war. (13 Eddard 2.31)
This is an issue even today: there are certain things we allow in war that we don't allow in everyday life. (Just try to use a bunker-buster bomb on a sibling and see if your parents let you get away with it.) But at the same time, there may be a gray area where people disagree: is it murder (unjust) or war (just)?
"Seven hells," Robert swore. "Cersei, look at her. She's a child. What would you have me do, whip her through the streets? Damn it, children fight. It's over. No lasting harm was done." (17 Eddard 3.35)
There are many ways to deal with potentially criminal behavior in this medieval world. Here, there was a fight between children, which Robert wants to treat as a fight between children. (That is, no dessert for anyone.) But Cersei would rather treat this as a potentially treasonous crime since someone in the ruling family was hurt. In the end, crime and punishment really rely on the status of the people involved (and, of course, on the attitude of the judge).
That was the most dangerous part, Ned knew. "All justice flows from the king," he told her. (21 Eddard 4.118)
When Tywin Lannister presented Robert with dead bodies, it might've been unjust murder or just war, but the final decision was Robert's. There are laws, of course, but the ultimate judge of all these cases is the king.
"Is this how justice is done in the Vale?" Tyrion roared, so loudly that Ser Vardis froze for an instant. "Does honor stop at the Bloody Gate? You accuse me of crimes, I deny them, so you throw me into an open cell to freeze and starve." He lifted his head, to give them all a good look at the bruises Mord had left on his face. "Where is the king's justice? Is the Eyrie not part of the Seven Kingdoms? I stand accused, you say. Very well. I demand a trial! Let me speak, and let my truth or falsehood be judged openly, in the sight of gods and men." (39 Tyrion 5.91)
Tyrion's opinion of justice sounds pretty modern, doesn't it? We're with him.
"Vengeance?" Ned said. "I thought we were speaking of justice. Burning Clegane's fields and slaughtering his people will not restore the king's peace, only your injured pride." He glanced away before the young knight could voice his outraged protest, and addressed the villagers. "People of Sherrer, I cannot give you back your homes or your crops, nor can I restore your dead to life. But perhaps I can give you some small measure of justice, in the name of our king, Robert." (44 Eddard 11.61)
Ned reminds the people that justice can be made for a crime, but it can't return what was lost. Also, what's the relationship between justice and vengeance?
The crowd roared, and Arya felt the statue of Baelor rock as they surged against it. The High Septon clutched at the king's cape, and Varys came rushing over waving his arms, and even the queen was saying something to him, but Joffrey shook his head. Lords and knights moved aside as he stepped through, tall and fleshless, a skeleton in iron mail, the King's Justice. (66 Arya 5.77)
Although this is a terribly unjust sentence, to the commoners, it's just a fun bit of entertainment. Thank goodness for YouTube, right?
He wondered what Lord Eddard might have done if the deserter had been his brother Benjen instead of that ragged stranger. Would it have been any different? It must, surely, surely... and Robb would welcome him, for a certainty. He had to, or else... (71 Jon 9.20)
Since justice is often in the hands of powerful nobles, it relies a lot on how principled the nobles are. Here Jon worries that his dad – Mr. Principle – might be so stuck in his ways that he wouldn't even pardon his own son. After all, no one is above the law, right? (Eddard learns this the hard way when he is executed for a crime he didn't commit.)
It was your doing, yours, a voice whispered inside her. If you had not taken it upon yourself to seize the dwarf... (72 Catelyn 11.16)
When Eddard is in prison, he comes to a similar conclusion as Catelyn does here, blaming himself for what's happened (59 Eddard 15.4). We're not sure if Catelyn and Eddard are right to blame themselves, but it's nice to see people who could get away with almost anything holding themselves to high standards. That is, in the end, maybe the judge that matters most for these good, principled people is themselves. (Too bad there aren't more of them.)