Here’s something to ponder for the 4th of July weekend: The World Justice Project’s 2011 Rule of Law Index concludes that the United States is among the nations in North America and Western Europe that need to improve access to their civil justice systems.
About the Index
The World Justice Project describes itself as “a global, multidisciplinary initiative to strengthen the rule of law for the development of communities of opportunity and equity,” initiated by the American Bar Association and various global organizations.
Its second annual Rule of Law Index (pdf here) is a “quantitative assessment tool designed to offer a comprehensive picture of the extent to which countries adhere to the rule of law, not in theory, but in practice.” Written by Mark David Agrast, Juan Carlos Botero, and Alejandro Ponce, the 2011 Index is developed from public opinion surveys and input from legal experts in the respective countries.
Western Europe and North America
Because most readers of this blog are from the U.S., let’s center on the 2011 Index’s findings concerning the region of Western Europe and North America. The executive summary concludes:
Countries in Western Europe and North America tend to outperform most other countries in all dimensions. . . . The greatest weakness in Western Europe and North America appears to be related to the accessibility of the civil justice system, especially for marginalized segments of the population. . . . These are areas that require attention from both policy makers and civil society to ensure that all people are able to benefit from the civil justice system.
Americans, take note: “In most dimensions, countries in Western Europe obtain higher scores than the United States.”
Employment disputes in America
The 2011 Index results carry great significance for those seeking legal redress for wrongful termination, employment discrimination and violations of civil rights, and bullying and abuse at work. Here are what I see as some of the hot spots:
Despite America’s supposed overproduction of lawyers, obtaining affordable, quality legal assistance for civil claims can be a daunting task for all but the wealthy. Paying a lawyer by the billable hour can run up a huge tab very quickly. Those who opt for contingency fee arrangements — i.e., paying the lawyer a percentage of monies recovered in a successful lawsuit or settlement — often find themselves with little money left from the award even though they’ve “won.”
Furthermore, even with competent counsel, our systems for resolving employment disputes are costly and torturous for all parties, but especially for plaintiffs who must navigate bewildering administrative and court procedures in an attempt to secure justice. Frequently they must litigate their claims against a highly-paid team of lawyers representing their employer, the legal equivalent of a David vs. Goliath scenario.
Finally, the substance of our employment protections is lacking compared to many other nations. America — unlike many of its North American and European neighbors — adheres to the rule of at will employment, which means that workers can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all. Our labor union density is lower. We are well behind many other countries in fashioning legal protections against workplace bullying and abuse.
It is a shame — actually, shameful — that a nation founded on the rule of law is so stingy in granting legitimate access to its civil justice system for the vast share of its citizens. This is especially the case in employment disputes, where the stakes often implicate someone’s livelihood and career.
For a post about the 2010 Rule of Law Index, please go here.
I’ve expounded upon some of the ideas above in my law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” which can be downloaded without charge, here.
Disclosure note: I was invited to serve as a Contributing Expert to the 2011 Rule of Law Index, which involved completing a lengthy survey on labor relations law & policy and the general state of the legal system in America.