On Mondays I post background essays on the Shine Cycle, my fantasy series-in-preparation.
Even in a country with a strong and robust legal code and court system, and even with a method of determining the absolute truth value of some statements, there are cases where neither those ordinary processes nor that veridication can determine truth, guilt, or responsibility. And then there are cases—such as international disputes with enemies in times of peace when the enemy doesn’t want to start a war just yet—where there is no temporal authority to whose jurisdiction both sides will submit.
In such rare instances, the Empire permits, under supervision and regulation, trials by contest of skill. This originated in primitive “trial by combat,” which has as its strong philosophical foundation that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,” but developed by adding various other less dangerous contests. (My personal favorite is formalized cross-examination debate on an unrelated topic.)
To invoke such a trial, the principals must have exhausted all ordinary courts available to them, and must then agree on which sort of contest to undertake. If either principal is not skilled in the contest in question, and can argue convincingly for the rightness of his or her cause, a champion can usually be found, just as in our world lawyers and law students often do “pro bono” work. If (as with debates) the contest requires judging, judges are carefully chosen to exclude anyone with any interest in the case. The question which the contest is intended to settle is carefully specified, and if neither party earns a clear victory the contest is not attempted again.