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Reaching out to the general public

By Kees Sterk and Andrea Chis, European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ)

Kees Sterk, President of the ENCJ, and Andrea Chis, member of the Romanian CSM and coordinator of the project on Public Confidence and the Image of Justice, discuss the views of ENCJ on public outreach with UNODC, as part of the Organization's on-going work to promote judicial transparency. The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors as external experts, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of UNODC.

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The European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ) believes that councils and judiciaries should assume a new role to achieve a better balance of power and to strengthen the position of the judiciary, which necessitates expressing and explaining the role of an independent and accountable judiciary, within a state governed by the rule of law. In addition, councils for the judiciary should be instrumental in helping educate society about what judges do, and it is therefore essential for the councils and the judiciaries to develop their communication with the general public.

The ENCJ was able to gather valuable information about the great diversity of practices which its members (councils for the judiciary from the European Union) and observers had established to reach out to the general public. However, given the difficulty of ranking the various "best practices"  identified, the chapter on "Reaching out to the General Public" in the ENCJ report " Public Confidence and the Image of Justice" provides a list of examples of judicial outreach activities which judiciaries could set up in order to strengthen public trust.

One-time events are highly valuable, such as annual open court days during which the general public can access in-depth information about the functioning of the judiciary; activities like these allow for direct communication with citizens, and contribute to a better understanding of the functioning of the judiciary and of the challenges the system may face. Judiciaries should certainly provide citizens with easily accessible information about the functioning of the judicial system, for example via websites or leaflets.

Today, the availability of a vast number of communication platforms makes it easier to reach a higher number of people, and the ENCJ therefore recommends that judiciaries make use of this diversity of platforms when developing public outreach activities. The judiciaries can also lead public outreach activities through developing television programme formats with relevant broadcast companies, to provide citizens insight into judges' every-day work. Judiciaries would also benefit from communicating via social media, which is one of the most widely available and used media today, thus meeting the public's expectations and preferences. Social networking could be used by the judiciaries as a platform to inform citizens about their rights, about the role judges have in protecting them, and to readily provide facts to counter widespread disinformation.

The ENCJ also recommends conducting educational programmes for schools, as citizens should understand what their rights are and how to enforce them from a young age. ENCJ Members are developing a variety of educational programmes targeted at students and children, aiming at transmitting information about the functioning of the judicial system, the national procedural rules, and the different legal institutions. These programmes can be based on providing information, or directly involving children with the functioning of the judicial system, for instance as court reporters or during mock trials. Judiciaries can set up different programmes, adapted to their various functions, but the education and involvement of children, students and young adults should be a focus for all judiciaries in their public outreach strategies; an investment in the youth is undoubtedly an investment in the future.

Judiciaries can develop the public outreach activities they consider best adapted to the needs of their citizens; building trust within the judicial system must be a priority, and judiciaries should make constant, daily efforts towards this goal. As these efforts can take various forms, public outreach strategies should include regular events, as part of a long term, coherent programme. Judiciaries should also develop comprehensive communication strategies around a core message, which would require a sustained public outreach programme. When public trust in the judiciary is fragile, a public outreach programme should be a part of continuous efforts to rebuild this trust. 

As low trust in the judiciary provides a basis for bad judicial reforms and challenges to judicial independence, public outreach must be a core element in strengthening trust in the judiciary, by extending constant efforts in informing citizens and building their trust in the judiciary. It is important for the judiciaries to stay in contact with the public through various activities in order to have a platform to explain to citizens that the judiciary is a vital, and independent, part of any democracy.