Those of us involved in judicial administration often hear the term Rule of Law. We are told that the Rule of Law is a linchpin of personal freedom and a just society, and that the courts are a vital part of upholding the Rule of Law. In this blog post let’s explore what is meant by the Rule of Law, why it matters, learn about efforts to promote and measure it worldwide, and how court administrators (and others!) can apply all of this to improve the Rule of Law.
What is the Rule of Law?
Defining the Rule of Law can be difficult. An excellent discussion of the origins and meaning of the term has been published by the American Bar Association [What is the rule of law (americanbar.org)]. The ABA further established the World Justice Project (WJP)) [World Justice Project – Wikipedia] to bring together the international community to advance the Rule of Law. The WJP has defined the Rule of Law as a durable system of laws, institutions, norms, and community commitment to these four universal principles:[i]
- Accountability: The government as well as private actors are accountable under the law.
- Just Law: The law is clear, publicized, and stable and is applied evenly. It ensures human rights as well as property, contract, and procedural rights.
- Open Government: The processes by which the law is adopted, administered, adjudicated, and enforced are accessible, fair, and efficient.
- Accessible and Impartial Justice: Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals who are accessible, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.
Why the Rule of Law Matters
The WJP states it well: “No matter who we are or where we live, the rule of law affects us all. It is the foundation for communities of justice, opportunity, and peace—underpinning development, accountable government, and respect for fundamental rights. Research shows that rule of law correlates to higher economic growth, greater peace, less inequality, improved health outcomes, and more education.”
This sounds great, yet we all know there is a wide disparity around the world in each nation’s adherence to these four universal Rule of Law principles. But how wide are these differences? A decade ago, the WJP embarked on an ambitious effort to measure how each nation met these Rule of Law principles. The result was the Rule of Law Index; it gets a lot of media attention each year when a new report is issued.[ii]
How does the Index measure national compliance with the Rule of Law?
The scores and rankings of the WJP Rule of Law Index are organized around eight primary factors:[iii]
Conducting the annual Rule of Law Index is a big effort. The 2022 edition covers 140 countries and jurisdictions, relying on more than 150,000 household and 3,600 expert surveys to measure how the rule of law is experienced and perceived in practical, everyday situations by the general public worldwide.
The 2022 Idex Report produced several key findings:[iv]
- Between 2015 and 2022, rule of law deteriorated in 64% of countries
- Rule of law fell in 7 of 8 factors
- Pre-pandemic authoritarian trends continue
- Widespread erosion of fundamental rights continues
- 4.4 billion people live in a country where the rule of law is declining
WJP Rule of Law Index | Global Insights (worldjusticeproject.org)
Based on its research the WJP highlights significant findings. Here are its 5 Rule of Law Issues to Watch in 2023:[v]
- Checks on Rising Authoritarianism in Europe
- Rise of Disinformation Laws in Asia Pacific
- Strengthening Rule of Law in India
- Accountability in Latin America
- Rebuilding Trust in the United States
Unfortunately, all of these findings and issues paint a negative, depressing picture.
What can be done to improve the Rule of Law?
I encourage you to look up your own country to see how it is doing overall and in each of the eight factor areas. As an example, the United States ranked 26th in 2022. Kudos go to Denmark, which is ranked first; praise also goes to Moldova for having the largest increase in its score (+8.6%) in the past year.
After familiarizing yourself with your nation’s situation, the next step is to firmly commit to taking action to support the Rule of Law locally. If you are in a nation that is already doing well, the goal is to keep that high ranking (although there are undoubtedly some areas that can be improved). If your nation is lower down in the rankings, focus on the factors that need improvement. What actions can you and your organization do to improve the Rule of Law? The phrase, “think globally, act locally” comes to mind.
A great way to take action is to apply court performance standards:
- The International Framework for Court Excellence is a great resource: Court Excellence
- In the United States, Courtools from the National Center for State Courts is a great resource:
- Trial courts: Trial Court Performance Measures | Courtools
- Appellate courts: Appellate Court Performance Measures | Courtools
As with most efforts, start small and concentrate on one or two areas for improvement. Then, build on that success and expand to other areas.
Another way to take action is to join and participate in court administration associations in order to stay informed and network with other court professionals. By seeing and understanding what others are doing, you will gain insights into current methods to improve; who knows, you may be able to share your court’s best practices with your peers. If you are not already a member, consider:
- The International Association for Court Administration (IACA): Home (iaca.ws). IACA has a great list of national and regional resources: Links (iaca.ws)
- The National Association for Court Management (NACM): National Association for Court Management – Strengthening Court Professionals (nacmnet.org). NACM also has a list of additional resources: Partner Organizations – National Association for Court Management (nacmnet.org)
All of us involved in judicial administration have a responsibility to achieve excellence in our work to fulfill the public’s trust in us as public servants. Doing our best to achieve the highest level of the Rule of Law goes a long way to making that happen. I urge everyone to make supporting the Rule of Law a primary professional goal. The world will be a better place if you do.
[i] World Justice Project | Advancing the rule of law worldwide “These four universal principles constitute a working definition of the rule of law. They were developed in accordance with internationally accepted standards and norms, and were tested and refined in consultation with a wide variety of experts worldwide.”
[ii] The latest report is for 2022 and can be found at WJP Rule of Law Index | Global Insights (worldjusticeproject.org)
[iii]WJPInsights2022.pdf (worldjusticeproject.org), pp.9-10
[iiv] 5 Rule of Law Issues to Watch in 2023 | World Justice Project; full explanations of each are found there
[v] WJP Rule of Law Index | Insights (worldjusticeproject.org)
2 thoughts on “The Rule of Law, Index, and You”
Excellent piece Norm
Thanks, Jim. Those of us who have been involved in international ROL work know how important — and HARD — it is to promote the Rule of Law. You and I know this firsthand. Nevertheless, we need to keep on working and trying!!