How to investigate corruption in the courts 2

Just how prevalent is corruption in the courts? The closest approximation we can get is from a 2007 global survey by Transparency International. It found that 20% of African respondents who had interacted with the judiciary the previous year said they paid a bribe. For Latin America, the figure was 18%, and Asia, 15%.

These are rough estimates, but surveys are a safe and anonymous way to get revealing information about bribery in the judiciary. After all, few people openly admit to bribing judges. (A recent exception was Pakistan’s top real-estate developer, Malik Riaz Hussein. This past week, he provided journalists with evidence that, in order to curry favor with the Supreme Court, he had paid for lavish London vacations taken by the son of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Hussein’s admission raised eyebrows in Pakistan: the charges, some journalists say, are part of a plot to discredit the independent-minded chief magistrate.)

Unlike the statements of self-confessed bribers, surveys have been less contentious. In Russia, the independent INDEM Foundation conducts annual surveys of “everyday corruption.” The 2010 survey found that Russians were most likely to pay small bribes to traffic policemen and to facilitate entry in publicly funded kindergartens and colleges. Bribes paid to courthouses were lower down the list, with the average bribe at less than $400.

But surveys don’t name names and are less than satisfactory journalistically. It’s hard to put a human face behind the statistics. And readers’ eyes glaze over when they see numbers.

Here are other ways in which corruption in the courts has been revealed:

✔ Crowdsourcing information and stories from citizens. The Indian website I Paid a Bribe has been such a success in getting ordinary citizens to report their everyday encounters with petty corruption that it’s been copied in places like Kenya and Pakistan. These sites have used crowdsourcing to get an idea of the “market cost” of corruption. A look at stories related to corruption in the courts yielded such stories as this one from Noida, India: “For a civil case, I had to pay peskar (assistant to judge) 800 Rs to expedite the judgement.” From New Delhi: “I paid 1000 rupees to the magistrate to claim my stolen bike. So u pay to get your own bike back.”

✔ Finding out how judges enrich themselves. The poster child for this technique is the recently removed chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, Renato Corona, who was found by journalists to have tripled his assets in the nine years he was in the high court. Filipino journalists found property records showing his acquisitions of high-end real estate in Manila and raised questions about how he got the funds to purchase them.

✔ Tracing how judiciary funds are spent. There’s not been enough examination of how the courts spend public funds. A 1993 series in the Providence Journal won the Pulitzer Prize for uncovering how the chief justice of the State Supreme Court in Rhode Island doubled the budget of the state court system and used the funds to create new, well-paid sinecures for relatives and cronies. Among the charges against the former Philippine chief justice was that he had misspent part of a $22-million loan from World Bank on “ineligible expenses” like laptops and air travel.

✔ Questioning who really wrote those decisions. This is a tough call as it’s difficult to prove that a judge did not write the decision in a court case. For one thing, judges often quote liberally from lawyers’ briefs. But it’s a different thing altogether when a lawyer in a lawsuit ghost-writes the decision for a judge. But it happens.

In Malaysia, a legal secretary testified in a judicial inquiry in 2008 that the lawyer for a prominent businessman wrote the entire decision awarding RM10 million (about $2.5 million) in defamation damages to businessman Vincent Tan, a crony of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Tan had sued a journalist and six others for a story that said he was using his newspaper to promote his business interets. The secretary said that she did the research for the case and her colleague took dictation from the lawyer as he drafted the decision.

In a 1993 story, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reported on the testimony of an American writing style expert who said that the lawyer for the country’s biggest telecommunications company wrote the Supreme Court decision in a case that preserved the company’s monopoly. The expert made the conclusion by comparing he writing style of the justice with that of the lawyer. Three days ater the story was published, the justice resigned. [Disclosure: I was director of the Center at the time the story was published.]

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