Focus paper no. 5 / 22 July 2016

Download PDFThe efficiency of the civil justice system and economic performance


Unanimously considered one of Italy’s greatest invalids, the civil justice system, for which the Focus provides a detailed territorial breakdown through an interactive visualisation, still seems far from achieving the standards of efficiency and productivity of the more advanced legal systems. Some years after the start of the legal reform process, signs of improvement can be glimpsed (a decrease in new and pending cases), but the gains are still partial (outgoing cases are also decreasing) and too uncertain to enable us to claim a corner has been turned. Most importantly, this progress is not clearly attributable to an effective increase in performance, rather than to measures that restrict access to justice (increased costs to file a suit, filters for referring cases to the higher levels of justice, etc.).


What we can obtain from the numbers for each court, which are available through the data warehouse system implemented by the Ministry of Justice, is a photograph of an multiple-speed Italy, where regional (North-South) and dimensional (large, medium and small courts) disparities are accompanied by specific differences, producing a patch-work map of civil justice.


The great variability of situations found at the micro level emerges if we examine the flows of court cases (new filings, pending cases and outgoing cases) using two metrics that are widely used internationally for the ordinary courts in the 2013-2015 calendar years. The first metric, the clearance rate, is a ratio of outgoing cases to new filings in a year multiplied by 100. It provides an indication of the capacity of a court to clear its caseload: the more by which the ratio exceeds 100 the faster the reduction of the backlog; the more by which it falls short of 100, the faster the accumulation of new pending cases. The second metric, disposition time, compares pending cases to outgoing cases at the end of a year multiplied by 365, i.e. the number of days in a year. It gives us an idea of the maximum time it takes to dispose of a case. If a court, for example, has entered a judgement for 100 cases by the end of the year, while there are 200 pending cases, the metric would be equal to 730, indicating that it would take two years to deplete the backlog of cases pending at the end of the year.


The most interesting results are obtained by jointly considering the two metrics for each ordinary court. Representing the data for a year in a chart (with the clearance rate on the horizontal axis and the disposition time on the vertical axis), the courts fall into the four resulting quadrants, identifying four different categories: the “problematic” (quadrant I), i.e. those that are not keeping up with new filings and have disposition times of more than one year; the “convergent” (quadrant II), which are reducing their backlog but for which the depletion of the caseload will take more than a year; the “best in class” (quadrant III), which enter more judgments than there are new filings and take less than a year to complete a case; and the “divergent” (quadrant IV), whose disposition times are shorter than a year but which are accumulating new pending cases.


Using the chart to analyse the distribution by the geographical location of the courts, the problem of civil justice stands out as a “southern question”: while a large majority (44 of 50) of courts in the north are located in the “best in class” quadrant and none are in the “problematic” quadrant, a significant proportion of those in the South (18 of 58) fall into this category and only six courts are in the most virtuous quadrant (the courts of Marsala and Trapani are examples of excellence). Similarly, if you look at the size of the population served, small and medium-sized courts struggle the most (6 and 7, respectively, out of a total of 20 in quadrant I, the most critical).


At the same time, these trends mask differences and peculiarities that render the national geography even more irregular. The dispersion of the ratio of outgoing cases to new filings is remarkable: in the south alone, the values range from the 133-145 per cent registered in Foggia, Isernia and Lamezia Terme, to 83 in Vallo della Lucania and Gela. The same holds for disposition times, in which the leader is Aosta (118 days) and the laggard is Patti (1193 days).


There is more. At the end of last year, the courts of Nola, Foggia and Civitavecchia displayed a virtually identical prospective capacity to deplete their backlog (between 574 and 581 days). But while the former two, with clearance rates significantly greater than 100, were successful in reducing their pending caseload, Civitavecchia (a clearance rate of 95.6 percent) has increased its backlog. The same thing can be said for three cases – Salerno, Vercelli and Taranto – which in 2015 had very similar clearance rates (ranging from 116 to 118 per cent), but the two southern courts had disposition times of 378 days (Taranto) and 658 days (Salerno), compared with 215 days for the Vercelli court.


What conclusions can we draw? They can only be preliminary, partial and therefore susceptible to further study. It is indeed difficult to use this static picture to form a judgment on the efficiency of this or that court in the absence of information on the inputs available for each location. The heterogeneity of the ratios for courts of similar size and geographic location could also be explained by differences in the availability of material resources and personnel, or even by exogenous factors of some other nature.


Text of document (in Italian)