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JUSTICE MINISTER SAYS HIS PLANS TO REORGANISE COURTS WILL MAKE JUDICIARY MORE EFFECTIVE

Judges oppose court reshuffle

JUDGES say they doubt that the Justice Ministry's planned reshuffle of the courts will help increase the system's effectiveness and turn years of waiting for judicial verdicts into months, as the ministry has promised.
A committee led by the general director of the ministry's general administration of courts, Jana Dubovcová, proposed a plan called the Optimisation of Courts Administration, under which 32 of the total 63 regional and lower district courts will either be shut down or reorganised into what the ministry hopes will be more effective units.
The 15 courts that the ministry considers the least busy are to shut down. Judges who currently work in those courts will be offered transfers to other courts in their areas, possibly the closest ones.

JUDGES say they doubt that the Justice Ministry's planned reshuffle of the courts will help increase the system's effectiveness and turn years of waiting for judicial verdicts into months, as the ministry has promised.

A committee led by the general director of the ministry's general administration of courts, Jana Dubovcová, proposed a plan called the Optimisation of Courts Administration, under which 32 of the total 63 regional and lower district courts will either be shut down or reorganised into what the ministry hopes will be more effective units.

The 15 courts that the ministry considers the least busy are to shut down. Judges who currently work in those courts will be offered transfers to other courts in their areas, possibly the closest ones.

Of the current 55 district courts, 13 are to be shut down, 25 will remain as they are today, and 17 will turn into detached branches, rather than keeping their current form as fully fledged institutions.

Two out of eight regional courts, those in the western Slovak towns of Trenčín and Trnava, are also to be shut down, and their agendas should be transferred to the remaining regional courts in the western part of the country.

The six regional courts, to be called higher courts after the optimisation, should primarily serve as appeal courts against lower-court rulings.

Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic said: "After this [optimisation], citizens should not have to wait years for court rulings. The cabinet expects that quicker court decisions should come within two years [from the start of the reshuffle]."

The ministry hopes to have the changes discussed, and passed, by parliament by September this year, so that they can take effect in January 2004.

But judges have expressed doubts that the ministry's scheme will bring quicker court proceedings to citizens, while the Association of Slovak Judges (ZSS) said it regretted not having been consulted about the ministerial plan prior to its designation.

In an official statement from a national meeting of the ZSS, the body said: "The ministry's arguments will convince neither experts nor lay people that [through the proposed reorganisation of courts] the effectiveness of courts will increase and court proceedings will speed up".

ZSS chairman Juraj Majchrák warned that court proceedings may take even longer than they do now.

"People will not see quicker court proceedings because decreasing the number of courts is not a solution. Judges' agenda will increase, and that will slow down their decision making," Majchrák said.

Majchrák told The Slovak Spectator on April 1 that simplifying the courts' procedural rules that have been burdening judges with excessive paperwork would bring better results than reorganising the courts.

"Changes to procedural rules simplifying court proceedings would certainly help," he said.

Lipšic said, however, that it had been a luxury to keep the less busy courts.

"Judges in small courts have small [work] outputs in comparison to others, because regional divisions mean few cases fall under their administration. It is a luxury to keep such courts," Lipšic said.

"This is a proposal that is not popular in the judiciary or in the cabinet, but I am convinced that it will be passed," Lipšic said.

According to Dubovcová, the ministry's plan was "interfering with the economic administration of courts" so that the primary judicial personnel is saved from administrative duties through the reorganisation.

Under the plan, economic administration will only be carried out in district courts, which will be responsible for administering their branches.

As part of the reorganisation, the number of chief justices and deputy chief justices will decrease because the branches will be led by the deputy chief justices of the district courts. Thus, 31 judges who until now have been busy with administration rather than proper judicial agenda should be freed from administrative duties.

But some judges have already warned that the closure of some courts is ungrounded and that if they are shut down, some people will have to travel long distances to get to their nearest court.

Pavol Koreň, chief justice at Revúca district court, which is among those slated to be shut down, told The Slovak Spectator: "There is no guarantee that this [reorganisation] will make the working of the courts more effective."

He also said that his small court, composed of three judges, was a busy one, with each of the justices, including Koreň, having between 400 to 500 pending cases.

Koreň also said that when his court is shut down, people from Revúca will have to have their complaints dealt with at a court in southeastern Rožňava, which "is an hour and half away by bus".

Judges from other courts, including the chief justice with the Trenčín regional court, Jozef Kutiš, agreed, stating that for some people in his area the shutting down of courts would mean travelling rather long distances in search of justice.

The ministry argued that the speed and quality of court rulings were more important than a court's geographical proximity to parties.

However, the ZSS warned that judges who are to be offered transfers to other courts or branches after their institutions are shut down might prefer to leave the judiciary.

"Given the geographical location of these [branch] courts, the housing problems judges would face, and their existing family ties, it is realistic to expect that several judges will resign and solve their issues by leaving [the judiciary] to pursue other legal professions," ZSS statement read.

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