Budget requests for the judicial sector in Latvia have always involved the right numbers, but we have been unable to conjure up the right vision of what additional funding would mean to society. We’re prepared to change this situation next year, because a leap in the level of quality in the court system simply will not be possible with the current level of resources.
It is my view that attempts to improve the judicial system in Latvia must be based on three pillars. First, there is the issue of precise laws, and of particular importance to the courts is procedural law which can be understood clearly. The second pillar – well educated and trained judges, prosecutors, lawyers and court employees. At the beginning of the 1990s we faced a serious problem of a shortage of judges, and there was extensive staff turnover in the system. These problems have now been alleviated. We have a corps of judges, and our focus must now be on educating these people. The third pillar is a unified procedure for the provision of court services – information for visitors, the procedure whereby rulings are issued and petitions are accepted, etc. There must be unified administrative principles here, and these principles must be on full display in each and every courthouse.
I have set up a task force that will elaborate the basic elements for amendments to the Law on Judicial Power. We will also produce a conceptual proposal for the government in the area of court administration. Our goal is to set up a separate supervisory institution to bring together all of those structures which are engaged in various aspects of the judicial system’s financing, property, organization and judicial training. We are basing our work on the Swedish model, and this will help us to strengthen the rule of the courts and to deal with various problems more quickly and successfully. We will also elaborate unified principles of administration for all of our courts.
The basic issue here is simple – money. Financing for the courts must be reviewed and improved so that court budget proposals are submitted directly to Parliament, without the intermediate step of being reviewed by the Cabinet of Ministers. These basic principles must be in place by 1 January, because budget planning for 2003 will begin in February. It is possible for this session of Parliament to adopt this proposal if a majority of deputies will agree.
I have looked carefully at the reasons for problems with Ministry of Justice budget requests in the past. During the 10 years since the restoration of Latvia’s independence, the courts have never been a national priority. Our own capacity has been insufficient to provide a very precise formulation of the need for specific levels of financing, nor have we been able to state the return on those investments in terms of the benefits that would accrue to the public at large. The numbers have been correct, but we have not shown the vision. You can fight the good fight if you are completely convinced of your strength and if you have the goal clearly in sight. We’ve done enough work to explain the idea behind the reform. We’ve talked to MPs and lawyers, and our readiness is at a level where we can offer a concrete model instead of going on and on about the need to increase the salaries of judges. Reforms in the judicial system began six or seven years ago, when a three-tiered court system was set up. We followed up by supplementing our corps of judges and by creating a training system for them. All this has now been done, and we need a leap in the quality of the system. It won’t happen with existing resources.
There are things that can be done without increased financing, of course. I have always stressed that the organization of the work of courts must be improved. The institutions of self-governance which judges have set up are of key importance here. They evaluate the work of colleagues when nominating judges for promotion and when reviewing disciplinary cases. Judges have access to a wide range of materials to study, and they have every opportunity to evaluate whether mistakes that a judge has made or a lack of understanding that a judge has displayed are a one-time problem or whether there is a systematic difficulty; in the latter case the reaction must be harsh. We also have to look at ethical violations – something that basically has not been done so far. Judges have to be much more demanding when it comes to their colleagues. That will increase the prestige of the judicial system and the authority of judges. If we bring together these self-governance institutions on the one hand and reforms in the way in which judges are paid on the other hand, then we will have an instrument that will motivate judges to work with a greater sense of responsibility and at a higher level of quality.