The annual WJP Rule of Law Indexpublished today, presents a mixed picture of the global state of the rule of law. Multi-year trends reflecting rising authoritarianism are slowing, but the data suggest a mounting crisis for overwhelmed and ineffective justice systems.

The WJP Rule of Law Index, produced by the World Justice Project, where we both work, is the world’s leading source for original, independent data on the rule of law. Now covering 142 countries and jurisdictions (Kuwait and Montenegro are new additions this year), the 2023 Index relies on more than 149,000 household surveys and 3,400 legal practitioner and expert surveys to measure and compare how the rule of law is experienced and perceived at the national level. The survey data is aggregated to generate objective and globally comparable scores and rankings for each country on eight factors of the rule of law: Constraints on Government Powers, Absence of Corruption, Open Government, Fundamental Rights, Order and Security, Regulatory Enforcement, Civil Justice, and Criminal Justice.

Creeping Authoritarianism Slows

For the sixth year in a row, a majority of countries experienced declining rule of law, driven by two sets of issues—authoritarian trends (measured by the Index factors on Constraints on Government Powers and Fundamental Rights) and struggling justice systems (measured by the Index factors on Civil and Criminal Justice). More than six billion people—76% of the world’s population–live in countries where the rule of law weakened in the past year.

Despite the persistent global downturn, the data suggest a slowing trend toward authoritarianism. Both the percentage of countries with deteriorating rule of law (59%) and the average size of the declines lessened for the second year in a row, and a diverse set of countries logged multi-year progress as they emerge from conflict, difficult transitions, and the governance challenges posed by the pandemic.    

The countries with the biggest improvements in rule of law in the past year were Bulgaria (1.7%), Honduras (1.6%), Kenya (1.6%), Slovenia (1.6%) and Jordan (1.4%), with Honduras landing in the top five improvers for the second year in a row. Notwithstanding countervailing pressures from Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Moldova all have made significant multi-year rule of law gains. Zimbabwe, although near the bottom of our rankings, has made notable progress since the transition from the thirty-year dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. And despite a succession crisis that ended last year, Malaysia is now resuming rule of law progress.

It is way too soon to declare an end to the global rule of law recession, and the recovery will be long and uneven. The deep erosion of fundamental rights and checks on executive authority that has occurred in recent years persists. Seventy-seven percent of countries have registered a decline in fundamental rights in the Index since 2016.

Graphic depicting declines and improvements in human rights around the world (via the World Justice Project)

Nonetheless, the rule of law gains seen this year, even in very difficult contexts, suggest progress can be made.

Justice Systems Failing

Even as slowing authoritarian trends provide rays of hope, the WJP Index data point to mounting challenges facing justice systems across the globe, with more countries struggling to provide people with timely, affordable, and accessible justice. The Index factor with the most widespread declines in 2023 was the factor measuring Civil Justice, which fell in 66% of countries (up from 61% in 2022), while the Index measure for Criminal Justice fell in 56% of countries. Each of the sub-factors that comprise the Index measure for Civil Justice declined in a majority of countries.

Graphic depicting the percentage of countries that experienced civil justice declines in 2023 (via the World Justice Project)

Persistent delays in both civil and criminal justice systems can no longer be chalked up to the pandemic and suggest more sustained and systemic challenges facing justice systems. Previous WJP research shows that although civil justice problems are widely prevalent in countries across the globe, justice systems are failing to meet people’s everyday legal needs. In seven out of ten countries, 62% of people who need access to a dispute resolution mechanism did not find it, while in half the countries studied, at least 35% of people with legal problems cannot find adequate information to solve them, and at least 50% do not have access to appropriate assistance and representation.

The data make a compelling case for growing calls for transformation of justice systems toward people-centered justice, reorienting justice institutions to put outcomes and problem-solving for the people they serve at the center of justice policymaking. This is an approach championed by the Dutch-led growing multinational Justice Action Coalition and recently embraced by USAID in its new rule of law policy, the Summit for Democracy, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s reinvigorated Access to Justice Office, among others.

Even if reformists can beat back authoritarianism and restore checks and balances and human rights, sustained rule of law progress will require attention to struggling justice systems the world over.

U.S. Rule of Law Recovery Falters

In the 2022 Index, the United States emerged as one of the top five improvers globally, following four consecutive years of eroding Index scores. Unfortunately, that recovery appears to be stalled, as the U.S. Index score dropped slightly again this year.

With an overall ranking of 26 out of 142, the United States score fell in six of the eight Index factors this year. Tracking the global trend, it saw the sharpest deterioration in the performance of its civil and criminal justice systems. The U.S. score on Constraints on Government Power improved slightly, but this was driven entirely by positive trends in the Index measure of checks imposed by independent audit agencies, such as Inspectors General and the Government Accountability Office. The United States saw declines in all other Index measures for checks and balances, including checks by the legislature, judiciary, civil society and media, elections, and the extent to which government officials are held accountable for misconduct. The United States remains 15% below its 2016 score on these basic elements of the rule of law. At the same time, it registered notably low global rankings on the Index measures of key dimensions of its justice system, ranking 115th out of 142 countries in the Index measure for affordability and accessibility of the civil justice system. Global WJP data suggest that barriers to accessing justice are particularly acute for poor and traditionally marginalized populations. The United States ranks 106th on the Index metric for discrimination generally, and 109th and 124th on the metrics for discrimination in the criminal and civil justice systems, respectively.

The data suggest a long and slow rule of law recovery for the United States, requiring a systemic shift toward a more people-centered justice system that addresses these realities, along with restoration of key institutional checks and balances and guarantees of integrity and accountability.

These are but a few of the insights the new WJP Rule of Law Index provides. We encourage readers to probe the data and identify other trends and lessons learned for strengthening the rule of law.

IMAGE: Statue of Lady Justice (via Getty Images)