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Trust in justice: mapping public attitudes towards the police and other legal institutions and how these findings have changed EU and UK policy

Research by Professor Mike Hough and Dr Mai Sato of the Institute of Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) into public trust in the police and courts across Europe has aimed to persuade policy makers and other stakeholders that fairness is not simply a desirable feature of justice systems, but a precondition for effective justice, and that institutional legitimacy is key to justice policy. It has influenced the operational strategies of the Metropolitan Police; and been disseminated by invitation to senior staff from Cabinet Office, Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Office of National Statistics. It has also featured in the broadcast media and the national press.

In 2009 ICPR (in partnership with LSE and Oxford University amongst others) bid successfully to design a questionnaire module within the fifth European Social Survey (ESS), funded by the EU and national research councils, to test various hypotheses relating to ‘procedural justice theory’. Fieldwork was undertaken in late 2010 and results were analysed by ICPR, LSE and Oxford from autumn 2011 onwards. Hough co-designed the questionnaire module; but it is the analysis undertaken by Hough & Sato, and the impact of the new knowledge they generated which is of significance.

  • This research has, more than any other criminological project, shifted police and judicial legitimacy to the centre of criminal policy preoccupations in the UK.
  • Previously, there was no systematic UK or European test of procedural justice theory, and it was unclear to what extent US evidence was applicable across the Atlantic.
  • This research has both developed and extended procedural justice theory, and demonstrated that its basic ideas are applicable across Europe.

The research systematically explored concepts of public trust in justice, public perceptions of the legitimacy of the police and the courts, and public compliance and co-operation with the law. Analysis of the results led to benchmarking of countries on dimensions of trust in justice and perceived legitimacy. These ‘league tables’ show the UK falling into the middle quartiles on most measures, better than most ex-Soviet Bloc states, but worse than Nordic countries and other European neighbours.

  • The significance of this research lies in its exploration of the relationships between different forms of trust, public perceptions of legitimacy and compliance and co-operation.
  • Trust in police fairness, for example, is a better predictor of police legitimacy than trust in police competence.
  • This has important implications for police forces in how they should manage their relations with those they police.
  • The research demonstrates that if justice systems treat people fairly, legally and respectfully, they build their legitimacy, and secure compliance and co-operation.

The key member of ICPR staff on this project was Professor Mike Hough with contributions from Dr Mai Sato (Research Fellow). Key academics from partner institutions have been:

  • Dr Jon Jackson (LSE) 
  • Dr Ben Bradford (Oxford)
  • Dr Jouni Kuha (LSE)
  • Dr Katrin Hohl (City University).

Mike Hough has been the member of the team who has been most heavily engaged in developing policy implications and in knowledge transfer work.