Public opinion survey results are attracting more and more attention from, among others, academics, analysts, the mass media, civil society, social and political actors, cooperation agencies, think tanks, policy makers and authorities in most public institutions involved in maintaining the Rule of Law. Examples of this abounds in the explosive proliferation in all countries of the region of specialized polling companies, and also in growing media coverage and more and more frequent commissioning of opinion polls by governments and public institutions; and these are just some of the most visible indications of this phenomenon. The relevance of these studies has grown to such a degree that the region now has two annual comparative surveys that are applied in over 13 Latin American countries.
These surveys are causing growing concern, which is not simply a result of a sudden fetish with public perception. Over the course of the last decade, opinion polls have become a kind of x-ray of the level of public satisfaction with the performance of public institutions, a type of support that is essential for legitimating democratic regimes. It is not by chance that the height of popularity of these surveys coincides, mutatis mutandis, with the consolidation of democracy in different countries. And this, in turn, seems to indicate that public opinion still maintains, albeit in an imperfect and somewhat distorted fashion, some of its most classical functions, in particular that of democratically watching over the actions of the State and safeguarding the sound exercise of public authority.
Within this context, the attention paid by public authorities to these surveys is not a simple idiosyncrasy of modern politics, but in fact necessary for the exercise of good democratic government. With these antecedents, it is^ surprising that in Latin America, those directly involved in judicial systems (themselves a basic component of any democratic system) pay scant attention or none whatsoever to the results of public opinion surveys that evaluate public perception of the performance of justice. For example, up to now, almost a year after the publication of the Latinobarómetro 2003 results there has been little to no discussion, at least publicly, of the poor showing of all judicial branches in the region. This is despite the focus on trends that has been incorporated in this version of the survey.
In particular, Latinobarómetro 2003 revealed three clearly marked trends in this area. First, the drop in confidence in the judicial branch seen over the past five years has continued. Of all people surveyed in 17 countries, only 20% affirmed having “a lot” or “some” confidence in their respective judicial branch, compared to 25% recorded in 2002, 27% in 2001, and 34% over the 1999–2000 period (Graph 1). In fact, 2003 registered the lowest regional average since 1996, the year in which the regional opinion survey was first conducted. Moreover, the continuance of the trend this year most likely means that the results for 2004 will be even worse, below 20%. And although levels of public confidence have dropped significantly for most institutions assessed by Latinobarómetro, judicial branches and Congresses are the only institutions that have recorded decreases in 4 consecutive versions of the survey.
Secondly, obviously the regional downward trend is the result of decreases in certain countries: Between 2002 and 2003 a drop in public confidence was observed in 14 of the 17 countries surveyed (Graph 2). Although we cannot rule out the reversal of this trend in 2004, possibility and probability do not always go hand in hand. Data from 2003 indicates that the public perception in each country is more troubling than a year earlier and, judging by the trend, it would be naive to hope for an improvement in the present year.
Finally, this year’s results show on average that among the 17 countries, judicial branches are less trusted than most other public institutions except Congress, which reached only a 17% approval rate. Although in general terms this same thing has occurred in most annual versions of Latinobarómetro, the 2003 results confirm that in general the judicial branch enjoys less public confidence than all other public institutions (even highly questioned ones) in each of the countries studied (Graph 3).
Why are these results relevant to judicial systems in the region? Beyond showing the inherent volatility of public opinion, there are three potential uses for this data. First, the level of public confidence in these institutions indicate—directly or indirectly, depending on the variables included in the study—how a service is assessed by its direct users: the citizens.Second, it indicates the level of effectiveness of policies to manage institutional image, where these exist or are being implemented. Lastly, it may be used by the judicial branches themselves to monitor the evolution of how their management and policies impact society. Given these possible uses, it is always preferable for a public institution to have information on its bad image than no feedback at all. Modernization of justice has and should include the use of newer technological resources and increased efficiency, but it should also mean the implementation of modern instruments for institutional governance; and image management is one of these. As with all effective management instruments, optimum image management requires information to be effective. Judicial branches cannot (nor should they want to) escape from this requirement. This need alone means that opinion polls assessing public confidence in justice provide indispensable input for good judicial governance.