How Europeans trust courts and police

Patrolling police 14 February 2012

People in Nordic countries have a high level of trust in the police and courts, while people in Eastern European countries tend to be the least trusting of justice institutions, according to recent findings from the ESRC-supported European Social Survey (ESS).

The fifth round of the survey, which includes 45 questions on 'trust in justice', was carried out across 28 European countries at the end of 2010. Comparative data from 20 of the countries show regional tendencies in the level of trust towards police and judiciary.

Findings from earlier rounds of the ESS have shown that, across almost all ESS countries, the police are more trusted than other public institutions including the legal system, parliament and politicians. The fifth round of the survey included even more detailed information in this area.

The ESS questions asked how contact with the police is judged. Israelis, Russians and Hungarians tend to be least satisfied, while people in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Belgium tend to be most satisfied.

However, there is no clear match between how much people are in contact with the police and the levels of satisfaction with police contact. While some countries, such as Sweden and Finland, have a high level of contact and high satisfaction, others such as Switzerland have a high level of contact and lower satisfaction.

Denmark, Finland, Norway and Spain have the most positive views on how the police treat people. Respondents in Israel, the Russian Federation and Bulgaria were the least positive on this fairness issue.

A similar trend emerged on the question of the police treating rich and poor victims equally. Again, Israel, Russia and Bulgaria, as well as Portugal and Poland, had the least confidence in fair treatment - while the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Estonia scored relatively well. In the UK just over 50 per cent of respondents thought the police would treat poor people less fairly than rich people as victims reporting crimes.

On the other hand, the trust in police effectiveness – measured in terms of response time to an emergency - was consistently high across all 20 countries.

Even though the police is one of the most highly trusted institutions in most ESS countries, data suggest that there are significant cross-national differences in how deep this trust is. Even in the UK, where overall trust in the police is relatively high, a little under one fifth of Britons feel the police do not make fair and impartial decisions.

The ESS survey also looked at the level of trust in criminal courts. Findings suggest that most people in most countries think that the courts treat different ethnic groups equally, without discriminating against minorities.

But even in these countries there can be a sizeable minority who think minorities are treated worse by the courts. For instance, in the UK, almost a quarter of those questioned felt that the courts would treat someone from an ethnic minority worse than someone from the majority.

In Sweden, Portugal, Spain, Israel, Hungary and Bulgaria this feeling was even stronger, with the majority of respondents believing someone from a minority group would be more likely to be found guilty.

Respondents in Denmark, Norway and Finland have the highest levels of trust in judicial fairness and competence. The lowest level of trust in this area was found in Bulgaria, the Russian Federation, Portugal and Slovenia.

Generally, public perceptions of corruption in the criminal justice system were much more favourable in Scandinavian and Northern European countries than in the ex-Communist countries.

The data were compiled from a total of 39,000 face-to-face interviews across 20 countries, following standards specified by the European Social Survey. The survey has been funded through the European Commission’s Framework Programmes, the European Science Foundation and national funding bodies in each country. The UK funding body is the ESRC, which also funds a central co-ordination function for the ESS based at City University.

"Since 2001 the ESS has been measuring social attitudes across over 30 European countries using robust scientific methodology to allow cross-national comparisons. With over 200,000 interviews already conducted and over 40,000 data users worldwide, the survey sheds light on the critical issues in European countries including political trust, immigration, welfare provision and education," says Rory Fitzgerald, ESS Principal Investigator.