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Do you trust your justice system?

An enterprising EU-sponsored survey is finding out how the justice system in different European countries is perceived. This could be the first step to upgrading the system and harmonising it across Europe.

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The justice system is an important product of our values as a society. It has been the backbone of fairness, security and progress in a civilisation. In a spirit of openness and improvement, the EU-funded project Euro-Justis is investigating public confidence in the justice system. It is providing EU institutions and Member States with new indicators for assessing justice. While Member States are considering social indicators to improve justice policy and its assessment, limited progress has been made in this respect. Generally, indicators based on statistics such as crime trends have been used extensively. However, little attention has been given to crucial but hard-to-measure indicators regarding public trust in justice. Without such indicators, crime policies may focus excessively on crime control while ignoring important longer-term objectives that encourage social cohesion. To address this challenge, Euro-Justis is conducting surveys of public trust in justice. It is studying data by country to interpret indicators such as socio-economic standing and information about each country's criminal justice system. Euro-Justis will develop tools for presenting and interpreting the indicators in ways that are intuitive and accessible. The project aims to develop scientifically credible indicators and build consensus across Member States about the importance of assessing crime policy for public confidence. The project team has already identified the need for social indicators of public trust, assessed studies on trust in justice, and gathered existing indicators that have been used effectively. It surveyed criminal justice experts and other stakeholders in seven countries to find out the perceived need for these indicators and completed a review of literature on available indicators. The results, which were published, helped elaborate the project's roadmap for the next steps. In 2009, Euro-Justis also organised its first international conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. Invitees included the Vera Institute of Justice from the US which is also involved in a similar project. A very important achievement for the project so far has been successful participation in the fifth round of the European Social Survey (ESS) conducted in about 30 countries. The survey included 50 questions on trust in justice relating largely to perceptions of fairness, effectiveness, trust and legitimacy. This is a highly significant development as it helps refine the indicators further. The survey also builds a large comparative dataset that considers cultural variations in trust in justice and helps test theories for shaping institutional legitimacy. Academic partners in other jurisdictions are being encouraged to undertake similar surveys in their countries: discussions are now in progress with Australia and Japan, as well as with Trinidad and Tobago. Once the project is completed, Europe will have a much better idea of how the justice system is perceived by the public and what steps can be taken to improve the system.

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