European Justice Scoreboards

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

The 27 Member States’ national courts act as EU courts when applying EU law. Effective justice systems are therefore essential for the implementation of EU law at both European and national level. Upholding the rule of law is a foundation of democracy and of the European Union. 

Guaranteeing citizens and civil society their rights, strengthening mutual trust and creating business and investment-friendly societies require effective and efficient justice systems. The European Union positions itself as a democracy and advocate of rule of law but, worryingly, even the EU has seen declines in both these areas and in effective justice systems in some of its Member States over recent years.  

The 2021 EU Justice Scoreboard has recently been published giving a comparative overview of the efficiency, quality and independence of the justice systems in the 27 EU Member States. It does not, however, present an overall single ranking, nor does it promote any specific justice system but instead gives an overview of how all the justice systems function. The term “Scoreboard” may not be the correct terminology for what is only an analysis of justice systems in the EU. 

Putting all Member States on an equal footing, the Scoreboard shows trends in the functioning of national justice systems over time. Based on various indicators, that are of common interest to all Member States, the EU Justice Scoreboard forms part of the EU’s Rule of Law toolbox which aims to assist the EU and Member States to improve the effectiveness of their own national justice systems. In effect the Scoreboard does little more than identifying good practices, improvements and potential shortcomings. There is no obligation for Member States to act on the findings. 

An efficient justice system manages its caseload and backlog of cases, and delivers its decisions without undue delay. The 2021 Scoreboard shows that efficiency has improved or remained stable in 10 Member States, while it decreased marginally in nine Member States between 2012 and 2019, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In quite concerning findings, last year the public’s perception of independence decreased in almost half of the Member States. This is compared to previously where two-thirds of Member States had improved, compared to 2016. The interference or pressure from government and politicians was the most stated reason for the perceived lack of independence of courts and judges, followed by the pressure from economic or other specific interests.

Many Member States have used digital solutions to improve court access but overall “significant room for improvement” was identified. Less than half of the Member States have procedural rules, which allow for the use of distance communication or for the admissibility of evidence in digital format only. In the remaining Member States, this is possible only in limited situations. In a number of Member States, courts are able to communicate via secure electronic solutions only with certain legal professionals and/or national authorities. In the case of prosecution services, less than one third of Member States provide for comprehensive secure electronic communication with legal professionals and national institutions. 

Most Member States provide citizens and businesses, or their legal representatives, with online access to ongoing or closed cases in civil/commercial and administrative cases, albeit in various degrees. However, in criminal cases in the majority of Member States defendants and victims have very limited possibilities to follow or carry out part of their case using digital solutions, and in other Member States this possibility does not exist at all. Compared to previous years, online access to court judgments has not progressed, particularly for the publication of judgments at the highest instance. 

Such findings are not in line with the EU’s digitalisation agenda, which is one of the priorities of this Commission mandate. 

The Scoreboard also indicates that there are some limitations regarding access to justice for poorer citizens. Compared to 2019, the accessibility of legal aid has been tightened in a third of EU countries and widened in five Member States. This development is in line with the longer-term trend, where legal aid has become less accessible in some Member States. A lack of legal aid and unaffordable court fees prevents access to justice for many people, especially already marginalised individuals or those from socially excluded communities. 

Effective justice systems which uphold the rule of law have a positive social and economic impact. As Europe emerges from the pandemic, disclosures such as the Scoreboard on effective justice highlight the severe impacts to a democratic society beyond the health impacts. These disclosures are only the beginning. With rule of law and effective justice being questioned by many citizens across the European Union, there is a fear that the funds distributed through national recovery and resilience plans will not reach those who need it most. When the effective justice systems are failing, how will the European Union underpin the founding principles of a rights based approach to democracy? 

Perhaps a proper scoreboard, one which rates and lists the justice performance of each Member State, would be more valuable in providing citizen’s more relevant evidence to challenge their politicians and governments. 

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