WASHINGTON -- The United States trails most of Western Europe in protecting the right of ordinary citizens to have access to a lawyer regardless of their ability to pay, according to a report released Monday.
The World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index 2011 ranked the United States 21st among 66 countries it studied in assuring access to legal counsel. The U.S. did even worse when it came to affording a lawyer, ranking 52nd. Legal assistance is expensive or unavailable to the average person, according to the independent, global human rights group's survey.
"The rule of law is the cornerstone to improving public health, safeguarding participation, ensuring security, and fighting poverty," said World Justice Project founder William Neukom in a statement. "Without the rule of law, medicines do not reach health facilities due to corruption, women in rural areas remain unaware of their rights, people are killed in criminal violence, and economic growth is stifled."
The index ranked nations based on how well they performed in eight areas: limiting government powers, curbing corruption, ensuring order and security, protecting fundamental rights, government transparency, the strength of regulatory enforcement, access to civil justice and the effectiveness criminal justice.
Richer countries generally did better than poorer ones. Western Europe and North America scored highest. Sweden and Norway led the world in adhering to the rule of law. Among wealthy nations, Italy performed the worst. Police discrimination was found in most of the world's wealthiest nations.
The report gave the United States high marks overall, saying it "stands out for its well-functioning system of checks and balances and for its good results in guaranteeing civil liberties among its people, including the rights of association, opinion and expression, religion, and petition."
But the U.S. civil justice system "remains inaccessible to disadvantaged groups," even though it is independent and free of undue influence, the report noted. "The gap between rich and poor individuals in terms of both actual use of and satisfaction with the civil courts system remains significant."
In addition, the report said that within the United States, "there is a general perception that ethnic minorities and foreigners receive unequal treatment from the police and the courts."
The index said people in Argentina have better access to legal counsel in civil disputes than those in the United States.
The World Justice Project compared countries by region. Among the findings:
- New Zealand got the highest marks in Asia, followed by Japan. The lowest scores were in Cambodia and Pakistan, which ranked at the bottom on nearly every measure.
- China scored relatively high on open government, effective criminal justice and order and security but lagged behind when it came to protecting fundamental rights and judicial independence.
- Corruption and a lack of government accountability are endemic throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the report said. The region also had the world's highest crime rates. The best marks went to Chile and Brazil. Mexico trailed the pack.
- Countries in the Middle East and North Africa got high marks for a lack of crime but did poorly on government accountability, openness and respect for fundamental rights. Iran ranked last, at 66, in protecting fundamental rights.
- Among former communist countries, Poland and the Czech Republic got high marks. Russia ranked near the bottom.
- South Africa and Ghana led Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that overall got lower scores than other areas of the world.
The World Justice Project expects to expand the Rule of Law Index to 100 countries in 2012.