Legal adjudications, which govern and affect every right and interest on this side of the grave, of necessity proceed and depend upon oaths. Perjury, therefore, in its general consequence, strikes at the security of reputation, property, and even life itself. A lie cannot do the same mischief, because the same credit is not given to it.

—William Paley. The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, 1785.

The criminalization of perjury and the rigorous prosecution of witnesses who perjure is essential to the integrity of the justice system. Judges who fail to act on irrefutable perjury undermine the credibility and authority of the court. Too often a judge, in his written opinion, determines that one of the witnesses was clearly lying and yet takes no action. If it becomes acceptable to lie under oath and if perjury becomes accepted as a legitimate tactic to win litigation, the courts will come to be regarded with contempt. If a judge believes a witness has perjured himself, then the matter should be referred to the public prosecutor. If a judge determines one of two witnesses must be lying but cannot tell which, the matter should be referred to the police for investigation. This applies equally to civil and criminal cases.

Tolerance for human foibles is a virtue. But when the foible in question undermines the rule of law, tolerance ceases to be a virtue and becomes corruption. Tolerance of perjury is no less damaging to the rule of law than tolerance of judicial bribery or jury tampering. When justice miscarries, commerce is crippled, cyclical violence occurs and the lack of respect for the law feeds upon itself, creating a downward spiral. In the end no one and nothing is safe. This is proved by the example of Third World countries.

Instead of swearing to tell the truth while holding a bible, witnesses should be required to hold a copy of the criminal code. They should face the judge, hold the criminal code open at the page on which perjury is proscribed, and read out loud the section on perjury, including the mandatory jail sentence. Only then should the witness swear to tell the truth. Before allowing any evidence to be given, the judge should be satisfied that the witness understands the oath and the penalty for perjury. If this solemn procedure is followed, and perjury is methodically prosecuted, it will greatly reduce the number of lawsuits. This is because many proceedings do not concern disputed points of law but disputed points of fact over which one party is being dishonest.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove