Demand for litigation in the absence of traditions of rule of law: an example of Ottoman and Habsburg legacies in Romania


The paper investigates the impact of historical legacies of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires on demand for litigation in contemporary Romania in criminal cases. It finds that nowadays a key difference between these two historical zones is that in the Habsburg counties demand for litigation increases if the income goes up; in the Ottoman counties, however, the demand remains constant. Furthermore, the demand for litigation in poor counties is smaller in Habsburg than in Ottoman counties. We provide several explanations to this phenomenon and compare it to the anecdotal evidence of culture of judicial appeals in other countries.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The concepts of “institutions” and “culture” have overlapping and multiple meaning in social sciences. In this paper we define institutions, in line with North (1990), as rules constraining human behavior, both formal and informal. The notion of ‘culture’ is more debatable (Herrmann-Pillath 2010); we will use it to refer to particularly slow-moving (Williamson 2000; Roland 2004) and deeply rooted informal institutions, associated with collectively shared identities and mental models. Historical legacies are often associated with cultural effects, but they may also reflect themselves in formal institutions (e.g. survival of certain legal norms or concepts).

  2. 2.

    For US courts of appeal see Songer and Sheehan 1992. More specifically, the literature argues that the effect is driven by relative litigation resources. However, the criminal cases in all parts of Romania involve dealing with the same centralized government, which has the same resources.

  3. 3.

    Our argument holds for the demand for appeals by defendant in criminal proceedings. Eisenberg et al. (2012) remark that the effect of income on criminal litigation may be more complex, since income may also affect the number of crimes committed.

  4. 4.

    Throughout the text Transylvania is defined broadly, including Banat and parts of Bukovina, unless not explicitly stated otherwise.

  5. 5.

    The period of rule of Habsburg Emperors in the 18th and 19th centuries was even longer, with only nine rulers in 1705–1916.

  6. 6.

    The Divan was the Highest Court in the Ottoman principalities. It was composed of boyars, the Metropolitan bishop and the prince as its head.

  7. 7.

    The possibility to appeal lower court verdicts was introduced with the rule of Constantin Mavrocordat who adopted in 1740 a Constitution creating the first instance judges (ispravnics) and second instance judges (the judgments of the high boyars) (Mercure de France 1742:1512). The courts of high boyars (appeal courts) were also replicated by successive Moldavian and Wallachian rulers (e.g. Racoviţă, Ghica and Ipsilanti, see e.g. the description of Alexandru Ipsilanti judicial organization in Dariescu 2008).

  8. 8.

    More specifically, we take the number of cases per position of the prosecutors at the tribunal level, i.e. number of prosecutors normatively assigned to the tribunal (some of these positions may be empty, as discussed in what follows). Thus, we are able to account for the size of the counties and the differences in judicial capacity to find out the actual demand for the appellate jurisprudence. As a caveat, we have to acknowledge that some of the cases processed by prosecutors may not be an outcome of the appeals but rather transferred for criminal investigation from lower-level prosecution offices to higher-level offices. However, for 2012 we have obtained data on both criminal cases considered by judges in tribunals and number of cases processed by prosecutors at the level of tribunals. One can show that both variables are highly correlated (correlation coefficient of 86 %), and, as discussed below, cases arriving at the level of tribunals are mostly an outcome of appeal by accused. Thus, we can rely on our data for the purposes of research question of this study.

  9. 9.

    Even the intra-country studies of legacies face two difficulties: first, which historical border exactly has to be used (border between Habsburg and Ottoman zones shifted over time), and second, how to deal with counties divided between Ottoman and Habsburg (since we do not have macroeconomic data for units smaller than county, we also cannot use them in our analysis). Until mid-nineteenth century the territories of Moldavia and Walachia (what we consider the “Ottoman legacy” zone) have partly fallen under Habsburg or Russian occupation for brief periods of time; however, no permanent long-lasting presence was established and therefore the impact of the Habsburg legacies ought to be much weaker than in Transylvania or even Bukovina (which was occupied in 1774). As for the borders of counties, we have attributed the counties, which have mostly belonged to Bukovina or Transylvania in terms of territory to the Habsburg zone.

  10. 10.

    We use two modifications of this variable: total number of criminal cases and average number of criminal cases per position of the prosecutor.

  11. 11.

    Details on the sources and definitions of variables are available at request.

  12. 12.

    The efficiency of courts is available only for all cases, and not merely for criminal cases.

  13. 13.

    The results remain mostly unchanged if we control for the number of cases in trial courts instead of crime rates. We do not report robustness checks due to the space constraints; they are, however, available at request from the authors.

  14. 14.

    Interview on 18 February 2013, Strassbourg.

  15. 15.

    Personal communication with Laura Stefan, legal expert in the NGO and former Director in the Romanian Ministry of Justice 21 September 2012.

  16. 16.

    Interview with Gabriela Baltag, judge at the Neamt County Court, Piatra Neamt, 4 November 2010.

  17. 17.

    Interviews with diverse Romanian judges between 2010 and 2013 and personal communication with Laura Stefan, 21 September 2012.

  18. 18.

    Interview with Gabriela Baltag, 4 November 2010 and with Corneliu Barsan, Romanian Judge at the ECHR, Strasbourg, 1 September 2011. Legal instability and incoherence impact negatively on the functioning of the judicial system in Serbia (authors’ interview with Dragoljub Popovic, Serbias judge at the ECHR, Strasbourg, 6 March 2012) and Moldova (authors’ interview with Raisa Botezatu, Judge at the Supreme Court of Justice, Chisinau, 3 May 2011.

  19. 19.

    Interview with Iulian Mitrofan and Gabriela Baltag, judges at the Neamt County Court, Piatra Neamt, 4 November 2010.

  20. 20.

    A recent example is the case of Dan Voiculescu a Romanian politician who resigned from his post as a senator due to corruption allegations in order to be judged as a normal citizen, starting at the first instance court level and by so doing delaying the trial process with the aim to reach the statute of limitations. Interview with Laura Stefan, Freiburg, 2 September 2012.

  21. 21.

    Interview with a Council of Europe representative, Strasbourg, 6 March 2012.

  22. 22.

    Interview with Leonid Antohi, project manager at the Legal and Human Rights Capacity Building Department, Council of Europe, Strasbourg 18 July 2011 and personal communication on 21 September 2012.

  23. 23.

    Personal communication with Vladislav Gribincea, Lawyer and Executive Director of the Legal Resources Centre, 23 September 2012.

  24. 24.

    Authors interview with Leonid Antohi, project manager at the Legal and Human Rights Capacity Building Department, Council of Europe, Strasbourg 18 July 2011 and personal communication on 21 September 2012.

  25. 25.

    Authors personal communication with Vladislav Gribincea, Lawyer and Executive Director of the Legal Resources Centre, 23 September 2012.

  26. 26.

    Authors personal communication with Corneliu Gurin, legal expert at ADEPT (Association for Participatory Democracy) and vice-president of the Democratic Action Party, 22 September 2012.

  27. 27.

    Clearly, it is partly an outcome of very poor performances of the domestic judicial system (see ECHR 2009). However, it is also the case that the implementation of the ECHR decisions is in many cases questionable and excessively delayed (especially in the non-democratic Russia), so, the instrumental logic of appeals to the ECHR may be contested.

  28. 28.

    This result speaks to a number of recent papers looking at the legacies of Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe; while in this case there is also no continuity in terms of population, Grosfeld et al. (2013) show that there is a persistent effect of legacies (though driven by a very different mechanism than that discussed in this paper).

  29. 29.

    See also Brown (1996) for a discussion of heterogeneity of Ottoman legacies.


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An earlier version of this article was presented at the international workshop of the New Europe College and Yale University “Historical Legacies in the Black Sea Region”, at the Public Choice Society conference, and at the seminars at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management and the Russian Academy of Sciences. The authors appreciate the very helpful comments from the participants and thank especially Carsten Herrmann-Pillath, Ronald F. King, Konstantin Yanovsky, Elisaveta Gromoglasova and Joachim Zweynert. They are also grateful to the Editor and two Referees for their suggestions. All mistakes remain our own.

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Mendelski, M., Libman, A. Demand for litigation in the absence of traditions of rule of law: an example of Ottoman and Habsburg legacies in Romania. Const Polit Econ 25, 177–206 (2014).

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  • Law and economics
  • Legal history
  • Historical legacies
  • Judicial performance
  • Contextual factors
  • Demand for litigation
  • Habsburg legacy
  • Ottoman legacy

JEL Classification

  • K41
  • N43
  • P26