Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Rule of law? What rule of law?

As we approach the end of the year, the World Justice Project has released its Rule of Law Index for 2011. The index is a ranking of 66 nations based on their adherence to the rule of law.

As used by the World Justice Project, the rule of law refers to a rules-based system in which the following four universal principles are upheld:
» The government and its officials and agents are accountable under the law.
» The laws are clear, publicized, stable, and fair, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property.
» The process by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced is accessible, fair, and efficient.
» Access to justice is provided by competent, independent, and ethical adjudicators, attorneys or representatives, and judicial officers who are of sufficient number, have
adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

The nine factors considered by the WJP in determining how much a nation adhered to the rule of law are:
  1. Limited government powers 
  2. Absence of corruption 
  3. Order and security 
  4. Fundamental rights
  5. Open government 
  6. Regulatory enforcement
  7. Access to civil justice
  8. Effective criminal justice
  9. Informal justice
Limited government powers looks at the "extent to which those who govern are subject to law." In other words, are those in power held legally accountable for their actions?

Absence of corruption would appear to be fairly self-explanatory.

Order and security look at "how well the society assures the security of persons and property."

Fundamental rights looks at the degree to which the government protects fundamental human rights.

Open government looks to the degree to which the law is "comprehensible and its meaning sufficiently clear, publicized and explained to the general public in plain language..." while regulatory enforcement asks how well regulations are "implemented and enforced."

Access to civil justice "requires that the system be affordable, effective, impartial and culturally competent." Effective criminal justice looks to whether the criminal justice system operates impartially while protecting the rights of the accused and accuser.

Informal justice is a measure of "traditional" methods of resolving disputes such as tribal or religious courts and community-based systems.

The data was gathered by use of a general population poll using a sample of 1,000 people in three cities per country (the U.S. was represented by New York, Los Angeles and Chicago); and by a questionnaire sent to  "in-country practitioners and academics with expertise in civil  and commercial law, criminal justice, labor law and public health."

The United States is grouped together with Canada and Western Europe. Of the twelve nations that make up that group, the U.S. ranked near the bottom, while Sweden and Norway ranked near the top in most categories. This despite our deep seated belief that our nation was founded on the rule of law.

Here are the numbers:

1. Limited government powers... 10th of 12
2. Absence of corruption...  10th of 12
3. Order and security...6th of 12
4. Fundamental rights... 11th of 12
5. Open government... 8th of 12
6. Regulatory enforcement...9th of 12
7. Access to civil justice... 11th of 12
8. Effective criminal justice... 11th of 12

It must also be noted that, when compared with the 66 nations as a whole, the United States ranked in the teens in just about every category; ranging from 12th in open government to 21st in access to civil justice.

Most of the nations in the North America/Western Europe group had poor scores when it came to access to civil justice. Anyone who has ever had to sue someone - or been sued - can attest to the expense involved in getting a case before the court.

The report noted that "there is a general perception that ethnic minorities and foreigners receive unequal treatment from the police and the courts."

For a nation that prides itself on its adherence to the rule of law, the results of the survey are surprising. Over the last 40-50 years we have seen our nation devolve into one in which the power and elite are given free passes for criminal conduct while the poor and those without power are made to pay the price for their transgressions.

It's time we return to the day when no man was above the law.

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