The World Justice Project recently published their annual Rule of Law Index, a comprehensive study of the rule of law in 99 countries. The fourth annual index compares countries in areas such as the absence of corruption, openness of government, and protection of fundamental human rights. Intended for policy makers, academics, and anyone going through post-Olympics international-competition withdrawal, the index provides a comprehensive empirical data set driven by surveys of over 100,000 households and legal professionals. The verdict: America's failure to provide access to justice seriously harms the rule of law here.
The results are in—so how did team USA perform? The index found that, overall, the United States successfully provides its citizens the myriad facets of the rule of law. The index praises our “well-functioning system of checks and balances,” and strong protection of fundamental rights. Compared to the other 99 countries surveyed, the US ranked a respectable 19th overall, putting us on par with France and Uruguay. The performance of America’s civil justice system as a whole was merely adequate: the US is slightly above the global average, ranking 27th out of 99. That puts us in the same neighborhood as Botswana, Slovenia, Chile and Greece. While not awful, this is hardly the sort of quality Americans expect and deserve from their legal system.
But the US underperforms—spectacularly so—in providing affordable and accessible civil justice. In that sub-category, we were ranked 65th out of 99 globally. For reference, that puts us in a four-way tie with Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uganda. The index notes that, “Civil legal assistance is frequently expensive or unavailable, and the gap between rich and poor individuals in terms of both actual use of and satisfaction with the court system is significant.” Among our regional group (covering North America and the Eurozone), the US was ranked last. That’s behind Bulgaria, for those of you keeping score. (Though we did perform better than Mexico, which was placed in the Latin American regional group.) And among other high-income countries, we're 29th out of 30, ahead of only the United Arab Emirates. Readers of this blog know that the lack of access to civil justice is an ongoing crisis for low and middle income Americans, but still the comparison is shocking. Most Americans would hardly consider these countries our peer group, but the fact is that when faced with a civil dispute, any non-wealthy American might as well live in Kyrgyzstan. But hey, it’s not all bad: our civil legal system is (barely) more accessible and affordable than Egypt’s is!
The take-away from all this is that the high cost (or plain unavailability) of civil legal assistance in the USA has created a crisis in access to justice whose depth would surprise most Americans. The US Olympic team could hardly be expected to succeed using wooden skis in this era of Kevlar and carbon fiber, and the US justice system is failing because it is stuck in the last century. There are many changes needed to bring civil justice within reach of all Americans, but they share a common thread: We need to enable innovation in the legal services industry. We should allow outside investment, allow multistate lawyers, and allow à la carte legal services—allow some alternative to the archaic guild structure. Innovation could revolutionize the supply of legal services, and pass the savings to consumers. Other countries have embraced (or at least avoided preventing) these innovations, and they are better for it. There’s no medal for access to justice, but it’s something we all deserve.
Danny Foster is a Responsive Law intern.