Oscars for the best EU legal system

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A report has just been published by the European Commission which measures how EU member states are faring comparatively in a number of areas of their legal system. It is part of the continuing drive to use justice as a means of encouraging economic growth in the EU. This is the equivalent of the Oscar ceremony for EU legal systems, and, if the commission is too bashful to give prizes, I will play the MC opening the envelope and making bad jokes.

First, the report itself: it is called the Justice Scoreboard, and aims to provide objective, reliable and comparable data on the functioning of legal systems in all member states. It is based primarily on indicators for efficiency: the length of proceedings, the rate of resolving cases, and the number of pending cases. It also examines indicators to improve the quality and efficiency of legal systems, in particular monitoring and evaluation of court activities, IT systems for courts, alternative dispute resolution methods and training of judges. Finally, it presents findings relating to the perceived independence of legal systems.

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The link with growth is that the commission feels that effective legal systems are important structural components of an attractive business environment. It believes, doubtless correctly, that trusting that the rule of law is fully upheld directly translates into confidence to invest in an economy. So, given that the UK government is constantly criticising the EU for not doing enough to stimulate growth, how does the UK itself fare in the comparative tables?

Well, the UK comes consistently bottom of the class in providing data, and is awarded the wooden spoon in this category. Whenever there is an absence of data, there is a small handful of countries concerned, and the UK is always among them. As a result, it is impossible to see how the UK is faring in how long cases typically take to be resolved in the various member states, the rate of resolving contentious civil and commercial cases, the budget for courts per inhabitant, and the number of judges per 100,000 inhabitants.

Things get better after that. Maybe the UK government provided data only when it could look good?

Our next best result is in the category of the extent to which member states use electronic systems to manage cases. England and Wales comes in 16th out of 29 (not 27, because of the 3 jurisdictions in the UK). Scotland fares better at 12th place. So we are in the bottom half, which is not that good. For the number of lawyers per 100,000 inhabitants, England and Wales is in 4th place, behind Luxembourg, Greece and Italy. That can be seen as both good (easier access to justice) and bad (we are over-lawyered), although it obviously depends on distribution and knowing the golden mean. For compulsory training of judges, England and Wales is in 6th place, with Scotland 3rd.

For perceived judicial independence, something in which the UK needs to excel if it is to remain the jurisdiction of choice for litigation, the UK comes in at 6th (after Finland, Netherlands, Ireland, Germany and Sweden). The data comes from the World Economic Forum. For the perceived independence of civil justice, the position is about the same – 7th place for the UK, with some of the same countries ahead of it. The data comes from the World Justice Project. The commission makes the point that the data are important not only for growth, but also for EU law. Whenever a national court upholds EU law, it acts as a ‘European Union court’, for instance in enforcing EU competition law or other legislation. Shortcomings in a national justice system can therefore affect the functioning of the single market.

The commission will in future translate the key findings into several actions: there will be country-specific analyses prepared; regional development and social funds will be available for the reform of legal systems in the next relevant financing round; and the commission will work with member states to improve the quality and availability of comparable data for further exercises (prepare your excuses, UK government). Overall, the UK does well but never wins the leading actor award. We should aim to become the Daniel Day-Lewis of the legal world.

Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs

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