Improving access to civil justice is a good way to promote economic growth, according to a groundbreaking Belgian study covering the experience of 107 countries over 44 years. 

To enable comparisons across a wide range of countries, the study, by a team at the Catholic University of Louvain, takes a simple measure for access to justice: the number of professional judges per head of population. The researchers describe this measure as robust and tansparent. 'More judges means more resolved cases, reducing both the monetary and time cost of access to justice.'

Globally, the density of judges per head of population more than doubled between 1970 and 2014. Europe consistently showed the highest density, with an average of 10 more judges per 100,000 inhabitants than the rest of the world. Over the time period studied, the UK had a mean of 2.74 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 9.51 in France and 22.04 in Germany.

At the the other end of the scale, Ethiopia had 0.25 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, Guatemala 0.67 and Pakistan 1.05. The US figure was 10.12. 

While much of the paper is concerned with the statistical methodology - especially the problem of endogeneity, or dealing with omitted variables - the conclusions are straightforward: increasing access to justice by 1% increases the growth rate of per capita GDP by 0.86 percentage points over five years.

The results were checked by removing the least populated countries, which are assumed to have disproportionate numbers of judges, from the sample. Surprisingly, the results showed no difference between common law and civil law jurisdictions. The researchers say this is unexpected as in civil law judges' inquisitorial role gives them more power. 

The authors conclude that, overall, access to justice 'is an important factor affecting economic prosperity'. Sadly for European policymakers, the study finds the growth-boosting effect to be subject to diminishing returns - economic gains decline as access improves.