27 August, 2020
In order to prepare a report to the Judicial Council on the possibilities of speeding up legal proceedings, a discussion on deadlines for hearing civil cases took place in the Supreme Court on 27 August. The discussion focused on the role of a judge in the conduct of the proceedings, the application of sanctions to the participants in the proceedings, the use of technology in courts, the improvement of expert opinions, the development of court support staff, and other issues.
The participants of the discussion agreed that although the principle of dispositivity and adversarial principle of the parties is still important in civil proceedings, the role of the judge in conducting the court proceedings has changed. Nowadays, a judge must be more actively involved in clarifying the circumstances of a case and coordinating the actions of the parties. Further training of judges, both on the formal powers in conducting court proceedings and on the psychological aspects of conducting court hearings and understanding human behaviour, would help conservative judges to adapt to these changes in general.
The most common way of disciplining the parties to proceedings is to impose a fine for failing to appear in court or failing to provide explanations. However, given the different solvency statuses of the parties, the imposition of a fine is not always the most effective means for prevention of the so-called procedural hooliganism. If explanations or additions to the application are submitted late without reasonable justification, the court may not accept them, which is a much more effective means of speeding up the proceedings.
Participants of the discussion acknowledged that in certain categories of cases where the parties do not employ a professional representative, it may be useful to prepare an instruction or manual describing in simple language the course of the proceedings and the rights and obligations of the parties. Advocates are generally familiar with these issues, but given that not all advocates take part in legal proceedings on a regular basis, methodological material could also be useful for preparing claims.
The speeding up of proceedings could be facilitated by entrusting court staff with certain organizational activities that are not directly related to the function of administration of justice. Giving more powers to court support staff could motivate employees, thus both reducing staff turnover and allowing more resources to be invested in staff training. Both the training provided for employees when starting work in court and the manuals to make use of which when performing daily work tasks are important in providing further education.
The participants of the discussion spoke about the possibilities to improve the quality of opinions of the representatives of various institutions (especially of the competent authorities in the field of children's rights). In practice, these institutions often lack staff capable of providing quality opinions. It is important that the opinions not only summarize the facts of the case and include references to existing case law, but also provide an opinion on the assessment of specific circumstances of the case, which is most important for judges. It would often be sufficient for courts to call in an expert to give an oral opinion, and this is often needed not as much to prove a statement by one party but as to allow the court to understand a specific technical or practical issue. The right of the court to attract specialists or experts ex officio has also been discussed.
Electronic documents, court communication with the parties by electronic means and videoconferencing of court hearings are tools that will be used more and more even after the threat of the Covid-19 epidemic has diminished. It is important that the use of technological means does not restrict the procedural rights of the parties and is not too burdensome. The technological solutions must be safe and accessible to all, ensuring respect for the right to a fair trial. When deciding on the proceedings in person, written proceedings or hearings by videoconference, the differing possibilities for judges to perceive and assess the evidence provided and the possibilities for qualitative discussion of the participants in the proceedings must be taken into account.
At the conclusion of the discussion, the participants made a number of proposals related to the improvement, promotion of understanding and uniformity of regulation of civil procedure.
Representatives of the Ministry of Justice, the Council of Sworn Advocates, the Prosecutor General's Office, the Chief Justice and a legal research counsel of the Senate, judges of regional and district courts, as well as a representative of Latvia in international institutions participated in the discussion at the Supreme Court. The discussion was organized by a working group set up at the Supreme Court at the request of the Judicial Council in order to assess the factors influencing the length of proceedings, including discussions and hearing of expert opinions.
Information prepared by
Rasma Zvejniece, the Head of the Division of Communication of the Supreme Court
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