I read a statement somewhere that said "Justice will be given" rather than the usual "Justice will be served". Even though I understand that both statements mean the same, there is certainly some subtle difference between the two. What is it?
The crucial differences between justice served and justice given relate to the particular notion of justice involved and the implied relationship between the giver/server of justice and justice itself.
According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2010), justice has a number of rather elaborate and complicated meanings:
justice n. 1. The quality of being just; fairness: In the interest of justice, we should treat everyone the same. 2a. The principle of moral rightness; decency. b. Conformity to moral rightness in action or attitude; righteousness: argued for the justice of his cause. 3a. The attainment of what is justice, especially that which is fair, moral, right, merited, or in accordance with the law: My client has not received justice in this hearing. b. Law The upholding of what is just, especially fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor, standards, or law: We seek justice in this matter from the court. c. The administration, system, methods, or procedures of law: a conspiracy to obstruct justice; a miscarriage of justice. 4. Conformity to truth, fact, or sound reason: The overcharged customer was angry, and with justice. 5. Abbr. J. Law A judge on the highest court of a government, such as a judge on the US Supreme Court.
Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) offers different, but equally complicated definitions for the word:
justice n (12c) 1 a : the maintenance or administration of what is just esp. by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments b : JUDGE c : the administration of law; esp : the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity 2 a : the quality of being just, impartial, or fair b (1) : the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action (2) : conformity to this principle or ideal : RIGHTEOUSNESS c : the quality of conforming to law 3 : conformity to truth, fact, or reason: CORRECTNESS
The phrase "justice served" generally refers to justice in the "righteousness" sense of the word—definition 2b in AHDEL, and definition 2b(2) in the Eleventh Collegiate. At least figuratively, the image is of the decision makers in the court or tribunal or hearing doing their duty of service to the moral principle of justice (often represented in English and U.S. legal mythology as a kind of blind goddess bearing measuring scales and a sword). In effect, the lawyers, judges, and juries involved in serving justice are acting as servants promoting the interests of this abstract principle of fair and impartial judgment.
The phrase "justice given" (often stated as "justice rendered") involves a different definition of justice, one that focuses on justice as the result or outcome of an orderly and impartial process of legal or quasi-legal deliberation. This is roughly the sense of justice identified in definition 3a or 3b of AHDEL and definition 1c of the Eleventh Collegiate. In this case, justice is a kind of product produced by the proper functioning of the legal or social system involved. Those who give justice in this sense also serve justice in the previous sense—but the two notions of justice are quite distinct.