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At the remote sitting today, the Riigikogu received an overview of the organisation of courts, administration of justice, and uniform application of legislation from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Villu Kõve

Chief Justice Villu Kõve outlined the figures and trends in the court system last year. He also spoke about specific deficiencies in the work of the courts that the pandemic has amplified, as well as about concerns that follow budget cuts, and made a number of proposals to the legislator.

Kõve stressed that the court system continues to functions according to the general procedure during the pandemic. “The courts have coped. They have used various electronic means to resolve cases and have made a more extensive use of the written procedure,” Kõve said. “At the same time, we are facing major concerns and doubts whether the courts are able to keep up this pace in resolving cases.”

He assures that fair and objective administration of justice is guaranteed, as are the resolution of court cases mostly within a reasonable time, and free access to the administration of justice for the people. As evidence of this, Kõve quoted statistics and external assessments of our court system. 

The number of offence cases has fallen. At the same time, the numbers of civil and administrative cases have gone up. In 2020, circuit courts received a total of 33,658 civil cases, which is about 1,000 cases more than in 2019, and 4,000 more than in 2018. A concerning development is the increased number of debt disputes. The statistics on the expedited procedure in the matters of payment order show that 45,566 cases were received in 2020, which is 6,000 more than in 2019, and over 10,000 more than in 2018.

The Chief Justice explained that although the national support measures for the economy have kept the increase in the number of debt disputes and insolvency cases lower than feared, this could simply mean a postponement in the abrupt increase of this burden, and we might yet see debt, work contract, and taxation disputes increase with a small delay.

Concerning the administrative cases, he pointed out that the growth has exceeded 10 per cent compared to the two earlier years, and that this trend is continuing, as Tallinn Administrative Court, for example, has received 26 per cent more cases than at the same time last year.

Kõve said that the speed of Estonian court procedure has been assessed favourably in the European Commission rule of law report, and ranks high in comparison to other countries.

Despite the pandemic, circuit courts managed to keep up the speed in resolving civil cases last year, in the average time of 95 days. However, this includes all the civil cases. Action cases took 282 days, which is slightly longer than in 2019.

Appeals in offence cases remained much the same in circuit courts compared to 2019 (47 days), as did the average procedural time in administrative cases in administrative courts (126).

The proceeding time has increased the most in general criminal proceedings, being on average 255 days in 2020, compared to 226 days in 2019, and 216 days in 2018. This means that proceeding time has lengthened in general criminal proceedings.

Kõve referred to a slight fall in the number of appeals to the Supreme Court in criminal and administrative cases, and an increase in civil cases. Around 13 per cent of appeals have been accepted for proceeding. This has decreased considerably in civil cases and increased in offence cases. Kõve expects the disputes to become increasingly complex and their resolution to take more time.

Concerning the actual work of the Supreme Court in adjudication, Kõve referred to 12 cases of constitutional review that were concluded, including the application by the President of the Republic to review the constitutionality of the Act on the mandatory funded pension reform, and applications to review the prohibition of local government council officials to take other employment, the procedure for dividing family benefits between parents, and unfair treatment in allocating support in connection with corona virus. Currently, the Supreme Court is proceeding four cases of constitutional review, concerning fair treatment in release from office.

The key concern for courts continues to be the increased work burden. “Over time, this concern has only grown,” he said. “Courts are struggling to cope with the work load and will not be able to manage it with the current resources in the conditions of increasing burden and continuing corona situation, which makes the normal proceedings impossible.”

Kõve warned that the proceeding times not having increased much from 2020 might only be a statistical illusion. “It is possible that smaller or written proceedings were concluded as soon as these came up and that bigger cases have been postponed, only to accumulate one day and act as a hindrance to the whole court system,” he suggested.

The Chief Justice raised the issue of creating additional judges’ positions and extra staff to offer them immediate support in adjudication. “We understand that during such complicated times it is difficult to find the resources for this, and this is where my two unpopular proposals come in,” Kõve said and called for a review of the court network, and, on the other hand, a possible increase in state fees and a change in the bail system. “This would increase contributions from people who actually make recourse to court,” he argued. “Budget cuts feel very much like shooting yourself in the foot in this situation. They could set us back. We have built one of the most efficient court systems in Europe and we need to work on keeping it that way and improving it further. But this has been largely achieved by permanently overburdening the court staff.”

Kõve also touched on digitalisation of court proceedings, public participation in virtual sittings, social guarantees for judges and court officials, and salaries of advocate generals, interpreters and court security guards. Kõva proposed that the state could guarantee payments into the second or third pension pillar for the judges who have lost their special pensions.

Kõve also described the Constitutional Review Court Procedure Act as antiquated because while other procedural acts are being constantly updated, this one sadly hardly ever is. “It is time for the legislator to take it out and give it first to experts for an analysis in its entirety, to see if any proposals should be made; we need to either revise it as a whole or at least amend certain organisational aspects,” suggested the Chief Justice.  

Kõve also referred to election disputes in connection with the expediency and the procedure for resolving these. He warned that the disproportionately short resolution times could cause superficial decisions. Kõve proposed handing over the proceeding of election disputes to administrative courts, and the right to appeal by expedited procedure to the Supreme Court. The other option would be the Supreme Court Administrative Law Chamber, and in that case, the proclamation of election results should be unlinked from the resolution of disputes.

The last concern mentioned by Kõve was legal education. He referred to the Supreme Court analysis which revealed the critical situation in legal education. The current model does not guarantee legal professional whose qualifications are high enough to meet the needs of state authorities or private businesses. “Law is on its way out as a popular field. The results of professional exams are atrocious, downright depressing,” Kõve deplored. The requirement to provide full-time education free of charge has led to the inability to finance legal education adequately, pay competitive salaries to lecturers, and the bulk of studies has been redirected to fee-paying distance learning programmes. He proposed allowing or extending fee-paying programmes, introducing an integrated curriculum instead of the 3+2 model, imposing a universal law exam, enforcing state control over legal counselling, and applying stricter rules on recognising foreign diplomas.

Kõve also answered questions from members of the Riigikogu.

During the debate, Anti Poolamets (Estonian Conservative People’s Party) and Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) took the floor.

Photos of the sitting (Author: Erik Peinar, Chancellery of the Riigikogu)

Verbatim record of the sitting (in Estonian)

The video recording of the sitting will be available on the Riigikogu YouTube channel.

(Please note that the recording will be uploaded with a delay.)

Riigikogu Press Service

Epp-Mare Kukemelk

+372 6316356; +372 515 3903

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Questions: [email protected]