JUSTICE Minister Ján Čarnogurský has defended the judiciary amid growing discontent from his own prime minister at the speed of Slovak courts.
Following a demand from PM Mikuláš Dzurinda for a report on the state of Slovak courts, the minister presented cabinet April 10 with a summary of the number of cases outstanding in courts and measures implemented so far that have improved judicial efficiency.
Čarnogurský admitted that new legislation to speed up court processes could not be submitted now with only five months before parliamentary elections, but proposed measures for future governments to adopt.
"New measures that would speed up the work of judges in such a short time cannot now be proposed," he said.
The overview, which showed that since the start of 1999 the case backlog had shrunk from 600,000 to only 500,000 cases, was demanded amid the PM's growing frustration over the failure of courts to resolve high-profile cases connected with the previous government of Vladimír Mečiar.
When coming to power in October 1998 the government had pledged to bring to justice people believed to be involved in crimes connected with the abuse of powers of the Slovak Secret Service (SIS) and economic crimes during the Mečiar regime.
Many of those cases involve the fugitive former head of the SIS Ivan Lexa, including the discrediting of the former president Michal Kováč, fraud and the falsification of documents showing the liquidation of firearms used by the service.
But with five months before parliamentary elections little or no progress has been made in these and other cases.
The Justice Ministry denies the judiciary is at fault in the failure to produce convictions in the particular cases, some of which have been complicated by amnesties granted by Mečiar when he was acting president for a short time in 1998.
It claims that some of the cases have been halted because of the amnesties, and that judge Ľudmila Hatalová, who has not yet started work on some cases, is facing disciplinary proceedings.
Hatalová, who received the files on the cases in December 2000, said on April 9 that she has begun reading the first file from the SIS on the cases.
Some other judges have partially backed the ministry's claims, however, arguing that the complexity of the cases has held up investigations and convictions.
"I don't want to comment on these cases too much but I will say that they are very complicated," said Juraj Majchrák, head of the Slovak Association of Judges.
The Justice Ministry has denied that it has failed to introduce significant changes to the Slovak court system, and says that some of the proposals made by the minister will significantly speed up court processes.
"To introduce too many changes too quickly would have brought instability to the judicial system," said Andrea Krajniaková, spokeswoman for the Justice Ministry.
Some measures to improve court procedures, such as monthly checks on the work of judges and disciplinary proceedings for any judge found to be deliberately holding up court cases, have already been introduced.
The ministry has also said there are plans to furnish all courts with computers and introduce in "as many courts as possible" a computerised case filing system which would decide which judges are given which cases.
"This will save about 70 per cent of the time currently involved," said Krajniaková.
Among proposals for future change that Čarnogurský presented were recommendations that in future smaller, less used courts be closed and the savings be used to increase efficiency at other courts.
However, the general public as well as businessmen have admitted they have little or no faith in the legal system, and some businessmen have said they are unwilling to invest in a country where bankruptcy procedures can last for years.
A recently released quarterly Business Environment Index (IPP), calculated from the responses of select businesses on various aspects of doing business in Slovakia, confirmed the continuing concern of businessmen over the effectiveness of the judicial system.
Starting at 100 points in the middle of 2001, the effectiveness of the courts and the enforceability of the law has in the eyes of businessmen declined to the current 94.94 points.
Ján Marušinec, co-ordinator of the IPP project carried out by the Slovak Business Alliance (PAS), said that "it would be appropriate for the cabinet to turn its attention to the problem".
The Justice Ministry argued that the measures taken already will see the work of courts noticeably speeded up. However, Krajniaková warned that some courts would still face a struggle to work through their shares of the 900,000 new cases a year.
"We expect the full, complex reforms to speed things up a lot, but it will be different in different courts depending on how many new cases they get," she said.