Book Review: Uguali per tutti?

Daniela Piana, Uguale per tutti? Giustizia e cittadini in Italia (Bologna: il Mulino, 2016). 232 pp., €20,00 (paperback), ISBN: 9788815264336.

The Italian judicial system is commonly regarded, by domestic and international observers alike, as tardy, inefficient, and unduly selective in several respects. Even if one does not consider the negative feelings of Italian citizens and firms, such a picture generates severe consequences for both the country’s global economic competitiveness (with regard to its capacity to attract foreign resources) and Italy’s international standing in terms of democratic quality and legitimacy. Daniela Piana’s newly published book (Uguale per tutti? Giustizia e cittadini in Italia, Mulino, 2016, 226 pages) supplies a comprehensive review that covers the weaknesses and actual performance of Italian judicial system, as well as reform attempts and their results. The volume is addressed to specialists in the first place, but can be fruitfully read also by non-specialists.
Piana starts from the assumption of an “implicit agreement” between the citizens and the state, according to which not only the law is expected to be impartial as such, but it should also be impartially applied. The state is supposed to have assumed a commitment toward each citizen: “whatever your position will be tomorrow, the legal norms will not be applied in a certain way because you are ‘you,’ but rather because they happen to regulate in a general way the given situation in which you are, or the specific behavior that you chose’” (p. 8). However, as already suggested in the title of the book, remarkable differences can be observed in the way citizens’ rights and claims are actually dealt with by Italian courts. Therefore, the principle of equality before the law is not always respected in practice. This is shown mainly through the analysis of statistical data concerning workload, speediness, personnel and performance at the three levels (first degree, appellate, Cassation court). Now and then some stylized cases are also presented as examples, without any reference to real trials and names. Piana underlines that between 1959 and 2014 Italy was sanctioned 1189 times (France 482, Germany 102, Netherlands 8) by the Strasbourg Court, given the excessive length of its judicial proceedings. As emphasized by international observers (such as the OECD, or the World Bank in the Doing Business report), on average the performance of tribunals is low. In the Mezzogiorno it is much lower compared to the rest of the country. But it is not true that all the courts in the south are more inefficient. Moreover, some courts in the center-north are also significantly below the average. The same lawsuit might be managed differently by two courts in the same regione or provincia.
One chapter is devoted to access to justice and communication about the law. The beliefs of citizens, their understanding of the system’s functioning are very relevant for the decision to start a judicial proceeding or for the way they react when they are summoned. Informational, physical, linguistic, and economic aspects of access are therefore treated. The legitimation of the system by the citizens as well as their trust in it are generally low. Their satisfaction for the services received is not systematically surveyed.
Other chapters discuss organizational aspects related to the management of judicial offices. The operating style of the heads of such offices is a very relevant variable, given the remarkable differences in performance between courts. Such differences emerge even when we restrict the focus to cases located in neighboring areas, thereby exhibiting similar degrees of civicness. Piana tests the usual explanations, and shows that by focusing on the workload, given the actual size of the judicial staff, we do not always get the same results. In some of the courts where several staff positions are vacant, the ability to treat cases is among the highest; while in some courts where there are far fewer empty positions, productivity is low. When we consider the different levels of civicness/social capital, we also see that they are not strictly, systematically and consistently correlated with different judicial performances. The role of administrative officers (by and large severely understaffed) can be relevant, if they are actually involved in executive offices of the trial court. Until recently such offices had been established only in a few courts. Decree-law 50/2014 required their creation in each appellate court and ordinary tribunal.
Other recent innovations addressed the telematic trial, the digitalization of documents, and more generally the use of ICTs. They require, in the author’s opinion, a regulatory center, so to avoid disparities between territories and enhance transparency, accountability, and traceability in the way resources are used. The Higher Council of the Judiciary is its self-governing body, whose competences expanded conspicuously over time. The ministry of justice also has some relevant powers. According to Piana, the center is weak, and one of the reasons is the presence of two heads, which frequently do not appear to be mutually coordinated.
In some cases, the presidents of the tribunal or the public prosecutors pursued successful strategies of performance improvement. After 2007 also the European Union supported, through the Social Fund, the diffusion of best practices concerning, among other things, application forms, costs, timing, and results. This is in itself a good thing, but—according to Piana—might result in an increase of previous disparities and imbalances. What is needed, therefore, would be a blanket coverage, in order to obtain the general adoption of certain good practices by all courts.
The demand of justice is also relevant in a country where almost 250,000 lawyers have to make a living. Some demands are filtered, supported, and channeled through the aid of grassroots associations. Litigation is not spread homogeneously all over Italy. Relevant attempts at diverting it from judges were made, including the introduction of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.
The last chapter stresses the difficulty of evaluating the many reforms enacted between 1992 and 2012. The general feeling is that they did not manage to affect the problems to any great extent. More recently, many other innovations were introduced on the basis of a somehow different and hopefully better method, based on reflections on past experiences and new approaches to impact monitoring.
This book, which also contains a comparative chapter showing that Italy is not an unicum, is an essential companion for reformers, legal professionals, and citizens alike (and also for non-Italian readers), because it offers an original, clear, and deep analysis of the relevant interpretations and data, convincing explanations of the crucial weaknesses, paths, and leverages for further reforms.

Antonio La Spina, LUISS Guido Carli University, Rome

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