Trusting the Legal System: Independence, Accountability and Performance
Securing the confidence of the public is of great importance for institutions like the judiciary and the courts. This is why an empirical literature on public confidence in courts has emerged in the last decades. There are a few examples of comparative research on public trust and courts; they suggest that people living in countries where the judiciary is more “independent” are more likely to trust the judicial system. However, there is an intriguing aspect to this almost exclusive focus on independence. First, most of the academic literature on “judicial independence” does not treat it as an unqualified good. Impartiality and unbiased enforcement of the law are valuable, but situations where “independence” results in a self-regulated and unaccountable judiciary are undesirable and may also undermine public trust. Second, regardless of extent to which citizens perceive judges to be impartial or even accountable, “justice delayed is justice denied.” As much as citizens may care about the procedural aspects of judicial decision-making, they are also likely to care about the performance of the system. In this article, resorting to several waves of European Social Survey data measuring European’s trust in their legal system, we suggest that “independence” is indeed too broad a concept to account for a straightforward relationship between attributes of the judicial system and public confidence in courts. Instead, we show that while politically dependent and weak judiciaries do tend to be characterized by lower citizens’ trust, this is also the case for judiciaries with weaker mechanisms of accountability. Furthermore, we document the existence of an interaction between independence and performance in the explanation of public support for courts, in which the system’s ability to avoid delays in disposing of cases becomes particularly consequential for public trust when levels of independence are low.
Co-authored with Nuno Garoupa, George Mason University Scalia law