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JUDGES COMPLAIN THEY ARE OVERWHELMED WITH CASES

Courts blamed for chronic case delays

COURT delays remain the Slovak judiciary's most infamous problem. In some cases, courts fail to deliver verdicts even after the last-resort authority, the Constitutional Court (ÚS SR), has recognized citizens' complaints on excessively lengthy court proceedings.
Ján Mazák, head of the ÚS SR, told journalists on November 24 that his court received 61 repeated complaints from parties that had waited in vain to see their verdicts issued.

COURT delays remain the Slovak judiciary's most infamous problem. In some cases, courts fail to deliver verdicts even after the last-resort authority, the Constitutional Court (ÚS SR), has recognized citizens' complaints on excessively lengthy court proceedings.

Ján Mazák, head of the ÚS SR, told journalists on November 24 that his court received 61 repeated complaints from parties that had waited in vain to see their verdicts issued.

Despite several new laws and measures introduced by the Justice Ministry, a positive turnaround has yet to be seen.

The 61 repeated complaints are, in Mazák's opinion, "a very negative trend", as they prove that "in as many as 61 cases, general courts have disrespected the findings of the ÚS SR."

Mazák stated that, since the start of 2003, his court has received 1,722 complaints and similar filings, as well as another 438 items that were transferred from the court's agenda of the previous year. Of that amount, 718 complaints pertained to unjustified court procrastination. The court rejected some of these as ungrounded, but ruled on 214 complaints that the parties are to be paid nearly Sk10 million (€241,000) in compensation.

Judges were hesitant to speak about individual cases, but in general complained that their workloads were excessively high and that the Justice Ministry's efforts to speed up court proceedings and take the burden off of justices' shoulders were not working well in reality.

Juraj Majchrák, head of the Slovak Association of Judges (ZSS), said that it was "definitely sad when judges don't respect court decisions; on the other hand, it is also true that justices are overwhelmed with cases. Often one judge has 600 or 700 cases to deal with - a year's workload in itself, not even taking into account that new cases continue to arrive.

"We do not want to criticize the measures of the Justice Ministry because we really care about finding solutions to eliminate the backlogs and speed up court proceedings. We don't deny that that the ministry's goals are positive, but many judges have so far not felt the positive effects," Majchrák said on November 26.

Drahomír Mrva, who is the deputy chairman of a district court in the northern Slovak town of Žilina, said: "I can speak for my sphere - the business register - we have never had any such [ÚS SR] findings [on court delays].

"But it needs to be taken into consideration that every court has its own staff and administration. If the number of judges is lower [than needed], then court delays may appear," Mrva said.

Slovakia has about 1,200 judges and statistics confirm that their workloads are high: often a judge has several hundred cases, including old backlogs, in their cabinets.

A recent survey of the ZSS showed that more than 80 percent of judges feel they must deal with an extremely large number of cases; they also realized that failing to deliver timely verdicts could result in accusations of court delays.

In general, judicial officials admitted that ignoring the findings of the ÚS SR was unacceptable.

Peter Brňák, a member of the Judicial Council, an independent judicial authority established last year, said to The Slovak Spectator on November 25 that "the constitutional court's decisions on court delays, and all consequences that go along with them, are binding for the respective judges, the courts, and their officials.

"If court delays were directly caused by a judge's actions, disciplinary measures should be taken against [the judge]. But if court delays were caused by an excessive number of cases assigned to a judge who fulfils all the set parameters of quantity and quality in decided cases, the leadership of the court is responsible [for the court delays]," Brňák said.

He added that, at one meeting of the Judicial Council, the members received information that "due to the excessive number of cases at the Žilina district court, judges set out dates for court proceedings one year ahead; a newly elected judge could immediately receive as many as 500 cases."

"In these situations the remedy is not in the judges themselves, but rather in [increasing] the number of judges through legislation and the harmonization of the judicial system. That, however, is the Justice Ministry's scope of influence," Brňák said.

Justice Ministry spokesman Richard Fides told the SITA news agency on November 24 that his ministry has submitted several proposals aimed to improve the performance of courts - such as a law on higher court clerks.

The cabinet recently approved a draft aimed to reform the judicial system, making it more transparent and effective.

An amended law on judges that took effect on November 1 introduces stricter punishment for ineffective judges; another law concerning damages caused in public office stipulates that judges could be held personally responsible - paying from his or her own pocket to cover a settlement from court delays.

"If a judge causes court delays and the ÚS SR's ruling includes a financial settlement, the state takes over responsibility for paying the compensation but, at the same time, it could demand the sum from the judge," Fides said.

Majchrák said that judges and Justice Ministry officials would discuss the problems of the judiciary at a specialist seminar on December 3.

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