This is year of significant structural reforms in Latvian court system. For the first time in 20 years of history of restored Latvian court system a reform is launched, transferring Latvian court system to  clear three-instance court system, and it was necessary to decide on further career of judges, inter alia, in relation to reorganisation of the Supreme Court and liquidation of court chambers. The second reform, which is not less important an historical, is the commenced reform related to concept of court houses.  

In my report, I will not linger in all issues resolved and I will not list all decisions adopted by the Council for the Judiciary. In my report, I will stress three issues, which, in my opinion, are currently important for judges and a court system, initiated, thoroughly studied, analysed and advanced for resolution by the Council for the Judiciary this year. Those are following:  

1) Extension of functions and role of the Council for the Judiciary;

2) Development and improvement of court communication;

3) Balancing of wages of judges and employees of courts in united system of wages in public administration.

 

Extension of functions and role of the Council for the Judiciary

Currently, the draft law of amendments to the law “On Judicial Power” are filed to the Saeima (Parliament) to be reviewed by the Committees. These amendments envisage extension of functions of the Council for the Judiciary. It has been planned:

1) To include issues related to promotion of judicial career into competence of the Council for the Judiciary, envisaging that the Saeima adopts decisions regarding a judge only once – when approving in judge’s office.  Further promotion would be carried out by the Council for the Judiciary, definitely grounding on statements provided by the Judicial Qualification Committee;

2) The Council for the Judiciary would have determinant role regarding appointment and dismissal of Chairs of district (city) courts.  

These are proposals initiated and supported by the Council for the Judiciary.

In accordance with Article 84 of the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia, the Saeima decides only on confirmation of a person in the office of a judge. Legal provisions for judiciary do not include further indications regarding issues related to actual place of work or career of a judge. Historically, part of issues was resolved by the Saeima (for example, on discharge of duties of a judge of particular level), part of issues were resolved by involving the Court Administration, the Minister of Justice, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, later – also the Council for the Judiciary. By currently advanced amendments to the law “On Judicial Power” it has been offered to review procedure of putting forward of proposals and adoption of decisions. Also the statement by Council’s of Europe Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) includes recommendation to promote involvement of the Council for the Judiciary and the Judicial Qualification Committee into deciding of issues related to judicial career, at the same time leaving only the most important decision to the Saeima, namely, in accordance with the Constitution, to decide on confirmation of a judge to the office. Certain consistency in this issue may be observed also with issues related to judicial careers after the reform of the Supreme Court – the Saeima, having stressed that a judge has been already confirmed in the office, pointed out that the Council for the Judiciary must decide on his or her career promotion and determine the court, where he will continue to discharge judicial duties after liquidation of the Court Chamber.  

Career issues must also be related to another functional issue of the judiciary, which is included in the foregoing amendments to the law, namely, authority to determine procedure of selection, training and passing of qualification exam of candidates to the office of a judge, which are transferred to the Council for the Judiciary.  Previously, these issues were set forth by Regulations of the Cabinet of Ministers. The proposal to extend authority of the Council for the Judiciary is logical division of work tasks. Already before entering the European Union, Latvia was pointed out problematic issues of development of judicial career within framework of the UN Development Project, having stressed that procedures of selection of candidates to the office of a judge and their appointment to the office must be separated from the Ministry of Justice and transferred to the judiciary to promote public understanding on independence of the judiciary from political influence and parties’ policies.  Now amendments proposed are possible, because the Council for the Judiciary is established and successfully started work.

Also in respect of appointment of Chairs of courts, the procedure envisaged in the draft law, namely, that this function will be performed by the Council for the Judiciary upon proposal of the Minister of Justice, should not be perceived as too radical proposal, because currently Chairs of courts are appointed to the office by the Minister of Justice upon coordination of the Council for the Judiciary. Changed procedure would correspond to process of separation of judiciary and executive power. Of course, technical maintenance of work of courts is still responsibility of the Court Administration and the Minister of Justice has been systemically involved therein, therefore, it is natural that the Minister of Justice will prepare the proposal, which will later be reviewed by the Council for the Judiciary.  

Currently, the law stipulates additional duties for the Chairs of courts regarding organisation of work of courts and supervision of work of judges. The person, when choosing judge’s career, most probably does not think about duties of administrative manager.  Actual management of a court is extra challenge for a judge, and not everyone wants or is able to deal with it.  Therefore, the term of office currently stipulated in the law, i.e., two terms of five years, would not justify itself, because a good manager is a long process of acquisition of skills. Thus, it must be supported that the Saeima is once again asked to assess this regulation and not to limit number of terms of office of Chair of a district court and a regional court.  

Communication of courts

The question regarding communication of courts has always been topical for public. Only when public understands work of a court, it also respects and trusts court judgements and decisions. Justice carried out by court must be seen.

Courts have never been closed institutions, the openness as one of fundamental principles of examination of cases is stipulated both in the law “On Judicial Power” and procedural laws. The law “On Judicial Power” is supplemented with chapter on accessibility of information and condition that all judgements adopted in open court hearing are published on the Internet.  

However, today it is not enough – both because main source of information for public, namely, the media, their forms, speed and insufficient number of journalist writing about judicial issues, and court proceedings have changed, by implementing written proceedings, shorten judgements, rejections to accept cases for examination, etc.  Public receives fast information, which, however, is not always complete; they read loud headings, but do not find explanation. An individual does not understand, why the court had not acted in accordance with requirements of seeming justice, however, there is a clear answer about distrust to courts, when various surveyors ask them about it. Results and their interpretation are quite negative for courts, and it, in turn, promotes further development of this stereotype about distrust to courts.  

How to escape from this circle of distrust?  Today I will not linger in study on perception of corruption initiated by the Council for the Judiciary. The study included conclusions and recommendations of professionals, which made the Council for the Judiciary to turn to issue related to communication of courts. There were two most important conclusions:

1) The court system does not include only courts – therefore, there must be united communication for entire court system;

2) Communication must be an element of work of courts – therefore, the strategy on communication of courts is necessary.

The Council for the Judiciary established work group, inviting representatives from the Judicial Ethics’ Committee, the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Justice to work therein and also involved expert in communication. 

We came to the conclusion that communication process must be organised by three particular documents:

1) Guidelines for communication of a court system understanding by the court systemall those institutions and sectors, which are represented in the Council for the Judiciary;  

2) Strategy on communication of courts – document stipulating more particular activities for courts;

3) Communication handbook – practical supplementary aid in communication process.   

Currently the Council for the Judiciary has already approved two from among these documents – Guidelines for communication of a court system and the Strategy on communication of courts.

What are further activities to implement these documents in life?

Guidelines for communication:

1) The plan on how to coordinate joint communication process has been elaborated (because many institutions belonging to court system are involved);

2) Guidelines for crisis communication have been elaborated.

So that our activities would be professional and to achieve expected goal, experts in this field are involved in management and consultations related to this process.

Strategy on communication:

1) It has been explained to and discussed with judges. In June, the Council for the Judiciary and the Judicial Ethics’ Committee invited Chairs of courts to joint meeting regarding this issue. During visiting meetings, the Judicial Ethics’ Committee meets judges and discusses issues on problems in communication;

2) Communication handbook has been elaborated.  Preparation of this document is assigned to the experts in communication of the Ministry of Justice, and we hope that we will receive draft project on the Handbook this year.  

The second part of today’s conference is dedicated to practical issues of communication of courts. I will close this issue with three accents:

1)  First, the foregoing task – communication must be an element of daily work of courts. Therefore, the Chair of a court is responsible for this process in his or her court to the great extent, equally to other issues related to organisation of work. And it is responsibility of each judge to support communication process – he or she must not necessarily become a spokesperson and speak in front of TV cameras, but they must be able and wish to provide constructive support to these spokespersons.  

2)  Second, communication in different processes of changes must be particularly considered. Moreover, one may not forget that internal communication between judges and court employees is of equal importance as communication with public. Previous communication in the process of reorganisation of district courts was not very successful in this sense, and such conclusion may be made from the alarm and protests expressed in letters received by the Council for the Judiciary from both courts and local municipalities. Having approved the plan prepared by the Ministry of Justice regarding reorganisation of district courts of Latgale court region, the Council for the Judiciary at the same time pointed out necessity for communication with judges and employees of courts subjected to reorganisation and explanation of process and results of the reform to public.

3)      Third, strategy on communication of courts also refers to institutions of judicial self-government and the Disciplinary Court.  These institutions must also have their own communication plan of how to become open and understandable enough for public within framework of legal regulations.  

 

Balancing of judges’ salaries in united system of remuneration in public administration  

As one knows, the Council for the Judiciary does not have legislative initiative right; however, our opportunity is to update some issue with studies, analysis, decisions of the Council and addressing respective officials and institutions. Thus, the Council or the Judiciary managed to draw attention to imperfections, which exist in united system of remuneration in public administration, namely, the significant difference between wages of lawyers employed in executive power institutions and judges. Wages of judges, which are considered to be equal, currently are even 50 per cent less than wages in executive power.

The Council for the Judiciary carried out analysis on real wages and drew attention to a problem that, having included judges and prosecutors in united system of wages, planned balance was destroyed, by cancelling limitations on extras and bonuses in public administration, but preserving those for judges and prosecutors.  

This issue was updated several times in sittings of the Council and in correspondence with the Ministry of Finance, the Council for the Judiciary addressed the Prime Minister directly, having pointed out that wages of judges currently does not comply with principle of judicial independence and does not ensure respective wages to judges. The Council for the Judiciary asked to eliminate situation occurred and to make amendments to legal provisions, involving also the Council in elaboration of amendments.

The Council for the Judiciary considers – to balance wages of judges and prosecutors and civil servants employed in public administration, judges’ wages must be linked with average monthly wages, which existed in the country two years ago, published officially by the Central Statistics Bureau, applying respective ratio. It means to reject from connection of judges’ wages to the 12th group of wages of servants employed in public administration, as it is now.  

Upon order of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Justice, in cooperation with the Ministry of Finance, elaborated several options of changes in system of judges’ wages and wages of prosecutors associated to it. The Council for the Judiciary has accepted a solution that judge’s wages has been brought nearer to level of remuneration of more highly paid Heads of legal departments of executive power institutions, determining the rate of a salary of a district judge of 4.31. Moreover, the period of three years, staring from 2017, is determined for balancing of remuneration.   

The salary of court employees also draws attention of the Council for the Judiciary. When examining the budget request of regional courts and district courts, and the Supreme Court for 2016, the Council for the Judiciary updated fact that budget of next year does not envisage increase of salaries of court employees. Salaries of court employees currently are inadequately low, comparing to qualification and amount of work, and it is not competitive within public administration. Therefore, fluidity of court staff exceeds 40 per cent, which certainly decreases efficiency of work of courts and may influence individual’s right to fair trial. The Council for the Judiciary asked the Ministry of Justice to update this problem and draw attention of the Cabinet of Ministers to it.

Currently, resolution of the Prime Minister is received, by which the Head of the Government asks the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Finance to observe provided proposals on system of remuneration of judges and prosecutors and salaries of employees of a court system, when elaborating the draft state budget for 2017. 

 

Nearest issuesof the Council for the Judiciary will be the ones on which discussions were already held and those will be continued after opinion surveys, assessment and, possibly, proposals of new solutions.    

One of the most topical issues obviously will be further development of concept of court houses. Further measures in this respect should be taken only after impartial analysis of gains and losses of former rearrangements, and, as I have previously mentioned – ensuring sufficient information and communication with judges, local municipalities, and public.

The Council for the Judiciary must also come back to question on possible cancellation of immunity of judges and prosecutors in cases on administrative violations, as recommended by Council’s of Europe Group of States against Corruption (GRECO). The Council for the Judiciary has not adopted a decision, because opinions on this issue in working groups and judges’ surveys were conceptually different. The Council for the Judiciary considers it necessary to specify more extensive opinion of judges on this issue; therefore, it is one of questions included in questionnaire for participants of the conference.  When discussing this issue, the Council for the Judiciary pointed out that legal provisions in administrative violation proceedings must be revised before deciding on cancellation of immunity of judges and prosecutors.  

Finally – an issue about reform of disciplinary liability of a court system, which ensures unified appellate instance in disciplinary cases of all officials associated to the court system. The Council for the Judiciary considered the objection of the Plenary Session of the Supreme Court regarding determination of the Disciplinary Court as unified appellate instance to be significant argument to come back to discussions on this issue.

The Supreme Court does not support imposition of this function to the Disciplinary Court, which was established only to appeal against decisions in disciplinary cases of judges to avoid possible violation of judges’ rights. Decisions of the Judicial Disciplinary Committee were irreversible; moreover, it is possible to appeal against decisions related to other officials of the court system under the Administrative Procedure Law.  The Supreme Court pointed out that proposal on extension of authority of the Disciplinary Court must be assessed critically from different – systemic, procedural and functional aspects, and also from the point of view of irrational utilization of budget means. Disciplinary cases of officials associated to the court system are classical administrative cases, and administrative courts ensure unified standards and case-law in examination of disciplinary cases.  Each case transferred by the legislator to the Supreme Court as to appellate instance, as it would be in this case, prolongs length of examination of other cases, which come to the Supreme Court to be examined in cassation proceedings. From the procedural aspect, it must be observed that amount of rights of advocates, notaries and bailiffs subjected to disciplinary liability would be significantly reduced.  From the functional aspect, it must be, in turn, observed that the Disciplinary Court has limited capacity, and, by extending its competence, additional financial and human resources will be necessary.

 

AT THE END, I would like to thank H.E. the President of the State for his interest in strengthening of rule of law in the state, listening also to opinion of the judiciary. Personal presence of the President in the first Judges’ Conference after entering the office, and establishment of the Committee for Improvement of Legal Environment is an evidence of that. We highly appreciate that the Committee established by the President has assessed importance of Council for the Judiciary in representation of the judicial power, and strengthening of role of Council for the Judiciary is one of first issues the Committee works upon.

Our goal is single – judicial state of Latvia, fair and independent judicial power.

I greet all of you in our national holiday – the 97th anniversary of proclamation of the Republic of Latvia to be celebrated next week.