IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, has released findings from its new report, Public Perspectives on Trust and Confidence in the Courts. The report, which is a culmination of a two-year Public Trust and Confidence project, looked into facets of public trust and confidence in the civil legal system.
Polling done by IAALS and others over the last few decades has revealed that public trust and confidence in the American legal system is low. Through long-form one-on-one interviews, IAALS collected data on perspectives of the court systems, judges and the judiciary, and information about the legal system, to get to the bottom of the public’s view of the legal system.
“This approach was designed to expand on the existing research, which is limited in the depth of information it can provide,” Logan Cornett, Senior Research Analyst at IAALS, said in the press release. “Our study’s long-form interviews allowed us to dig deeper and, in the end, our findings challenged many long-held assumptions about what the public believes and knows.”
Perspectives on the court system
Participants in the study noted the importance of the court system in their lives, stating that the courts play a role in preserving a civil society, maintaining democracy, and providing a mechanism for justice. There was a consensus among participants that the courts should be fair, impartial, and promote justice. Some participants also identified issues of efficiency, transparency, consistency, honesty, and integrity as critical to a well-functioning court.
A significant participant concern was the fairness of the current civil process, which centered on perceptions of systemic racial or gender bias, judicial biases, accessibility, and differential treatment based on financial ability.
One participant stated, “Not everybody feels comfortable using the legal system. So, this may put a person at a great disadvantage when they have a legitimate claim.”
Perspectives on judges and the judiciary
Participants overall had mixed opinions on judges in their community, but many said they trusted their local judges. The participants who did express distrust cited concerns of judicial bias specifically toward a particular political affiliation. Participants who trusted their local judges occasionally reported having direct experience with a judge. However, many opinions were based on word-of-mouth or the media.
When asked about the ideal judicial behavior, participants used words like fair, just, unbiased, professional, moral, and ethical. One point of contention between participants was whether judges should be held to a higher standard of behavior than that of an average person. One participant said, “I would like them to behave as though they are not only judges, but role models, and that whatever they do in their own personal lives…make sure if it hits the front page of the newspaper that you’re not going to be embarrassed or ashamed.”
Perspectives on information about the legal system
Most of the study’s participants didn’t have personal experience with a civil legal case, but many did have some broad sense of the legal process. Much of the information participants had on the legal system came from exposure to television and movies. Many participants recognized that these media portrayals were distorted in some way and expressed an interest in learning more about the legal system.
The information collected through the Public Perspectives on Trust and Confidence in the Courts report may offer new insights on how to improve the justice system.
“This is an opportunity for the courts to better serve the people who need them,” Natalie Knowlton, Director of Special Projects at IAALS, said in the press release. “Courts are publicly funded, and not only does the public not trust the courts, many can’t even access the justice system they’ve been paying for. Our findings give the courts insight that they haven’t had before. It’s imperative that we listen to what people are saying and take action—otherwise we’re looking at an even deeper public confidence crisis.”
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