Judicial independence in the EU: a puzzle


Based on data from the EU Justice Scoreboard, we identify a puzzle: National levels of judicial independence (as perceived by the citizens of EU member states) are negatively associated with the presence of formal legislation usually considered as conducive to judicial independence. We try to resolve this puzzle based on political economy explanations and specificities of legal systems, but to no avail. We then ask whether cultural traits can help to put together the puzzle. And indeed, countries with high levels of generalized trust (and to a lesser extent individualistic countries) exhibit increased levels of de facto judicial independence and, at the same time, reduced levels of de jure judicial independence. The combination of these two effects can explain why judicial reforms that should be conducive to an independent judiciary may seem to have adverse consequences. We conclude that cultural traits are of fundamental importance for the quality of formal institutions, even in societies as highly developed as the EU member states.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7

Data by Feld and Voigt (2003)

Fig. 8

Data by Feld and Voigt (2003)


  1. 1.

    This would be in line with Bjørnskov’s (2015) observation that constitutional property rights protection in these formerly communist countries was, at best, ineffective.


  1. Aghion, P., Algan, Y., Cahuc, P., & Shleifer, A. (2010). Regulation and distrust. The Quarterly Journal of Economics,125(3), 1015–1049.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bjørnskov, C. (2006). Determinants of generalized trust: A cross-country comparison. Public Choice,130(1), 1–21.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Bjørnskov, C. (2015). Constitutional property rights protection and economic growth: Evidence from the post-communist transition. Constitutional Political Economy,26(3), 247–280.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Bjørnskov, C., & Méon, P.-G. (2013). Is trust the missing root of institutions, education, and development? Public Choice,157(3), 641–669.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bjørnskov, C., & Voigt, S. (2014). Constitutional verbosity and social trust. Public Choice,161(1), 91–112.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. European Commission. (2016). The 2016 EU justice scoreboard. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Feld, L. P., & Voigt, S. (2003). Economic growth and judicial independence: Cross-country evidence using a new set of indicators. European Journal of Political Economy,19(3), 497–527.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Gorodnichenko, Y., & Roland, G. (2017). Culture, institutions and the wealth of nations. Review of Economics and Statistics,99(3), 402–416.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Gutmann, J., & Voigt, S. (2017a). Is judicial independence good for business? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the public choice society in New Orleans.

  10. Gutmann, J. & Voigt, S. (2017b). The independence of prosecutors and government accountability. Paper presented at the 4th workshop on the economic analysis of litigation.

  11. Hayo, B., & Voigt, S. (2007). Explaining de facto judicial independence. International Review of Law and Economics,27(3), 269–290.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Helmke, G., & McLean, E. V. (2014). Inducing independence: A strategic model of World Bank assistance and legal reform. Conflict Management and Peace Science,31(4), 383–405.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Hicks, R., & Tingley, D. (2011). Causal mediation analysis. The Stata Journal,11(4), 605–619.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (3rd ed.). London: McGraw-Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Klerman, D. M., Mahoney, P. G., Spamann, H., & Weinstein, M. I. (2011). Legal origin or colonial history? Journal of Legal Analysis,3(2), 379–409.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. La Porta, R., Lopez-de-Silanes, F., & Shleifer, A. (2008). The economic consequences of legal origins. Journal of Economic Literature,46(2), 285–332.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Melton, J., & Ginsburg, T. (2014). Does de jure judicial independence really matter? A reevaluation of explanations for judicial independence. Journal of Law and Courts,2(2), 187–217.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Murray, D. R., & Schaller, M. (2010). Historical prevalence of infectious diseases within 230 geopolitical regions: A tool for investigating origins of culture. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology,41(1), 99–108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Nannicini, T., Stella, A., & Tabellini, G. (2013). Social capital and political accountability. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy,5(2), 222–250.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Palumbo, G., Giupponi, G., Nunziata, L., & Sanguinetti, J. S. M. (2013). The economics of civil justiceNew cross-country data and empirics. OECD economics department working papers. https://doi.org/10.1787/18151973.

  21. Parsons, J. (2017). The world’s flags given letter grades. https://www.joshparsons.net/flags/. Accessed March 2017.

  22. Pinotti, P. (2012). Trust, regulation and market failures. Review of Economics and Statistics,94(3), 650–658.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Pitlik, H., & Kouba, L. (2015). Does social distrust always lead to a stronger support for government intervention? Public Choice,163(3), 355–377.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Pitlik, H., & Rode, M. (2017). Individualistic values, institutional trust, and interventionist attitudes. Journal of Institutional Economics,13(3), 575–598.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Ramseyer, J. M., & Rasmusen, E. B. (2003). Measuring judicial independence: The political economy of judging in Japan. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. van Aaken, A., Feld, L. P., & Voigt, S. (2010). Do independent prosecutors deter political corruption? An empirical evaluation across seventy-eight countries. American Law and Economics Review,12(1), 204–244.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. van Aaken, A., Salzberger, E., & Voigt, S. (2004). The prosecution of public figures and the separation of powers. Confusion within the executive branch: A conceptual framework. Constitutional Political Economy,15(3), 261–280.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Voigt, S., Gutmann, J., & Feld, L. P. (2015). Economic growth and judicial independence, a dozen years on: Cross-country evidence using an updated Set of indicators. European Journal of Political Economy,38, 197–211.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The authors thank Giovanni Ramello for inviting them to participate in the panel in honor of Ted Eisenberg at the 2016 Italian Society of Law and Economics Conference in Turin and participants of the 2017 Danish Public Choice Workshop in Aarhus as well as two anonymous reviewers of this journal for helpful comments.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jerg Gutmann.


Appendix 1

See Table 4.

Table 4 Description of variables

Appendix 2

See Table 5.

Table 5 Descriptive statistics

Appendix 3

See Table 6.

Table 6 Seemingly unrelated regressions—culture and de jure judicial independence

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Gutmann, J., Voigt, S. Judicial independence in the EU: a puzzle. Eur J Law Econ 49, 83–100 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10657-018-9577-8

Download citation


  • Judicial independence
  • EU justice scoreboard
  • Informal institutions
  • Culture

JEL Classification

  • H11
  • K40
  • O40
  • P51