Supreme court chief proposes relaxing court media restrictions

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Villu Kõve.
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Villu Kõve. Source: Kalev Lilleorg, Supreme Court

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Villu Kõve has proposed amending the Code of Criminal Procedure to restrict scope judges have in limiting media coverage of cases, particularly in corruption cases and others with a perceived public interest.

Such restrictions would also require clear justification, Kõve said, be limited in time and take into consideration the public interests, with the overall drive being one towards greater openness.

"I hope that these proposals will soon become current regulations," Kõve noted on Friday, at the annual meeting of the Estonian bench of judges, according to ERR's online news in Estonian.

Late last year, the Supreme Court upheld an appeal by an Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) journalist, who believed that a previous ruling had restricted freedom of expression and press freedoms.

Courts' image among journalists needs improving

Kõve told the judges' meeting on Friday that he found it regrettable that journalists had taken on the impression that all corruption cases were being closed to the public, while the facts of crimes against persons were allowed to be disclosed in the most blatant details.

"Here's a plea to the judges - if you deny [open media coverage], think about why this is and for how long," he said.

Kõve stressed that restrictions on the coverage of court hearings and other judicial processes could be limited to days or weeks, but not to years: "Since the media is our partner, and creating a negative image of the court system which then sticks, is not a good thing."

Kõve added that, the Supreme Court has plans to overhaul the media relations with the courts.

"Openness is the best guarantee that the public understands and recognizes us," he added.

Current practice confusing

The relevant provision in the Code of Criminal Procedure has given rise to a situation where a judge can impose an obligation to keep facts which have come to light in the course of the hearing, which has led to confusion, Kõve said.

"Too long a time limit and inadequate reasoning for this restriction has proved to be problematic, as the law says nothing about it," Kõve continued, noting that it might nonetheless be justified to conceal witness statements until all witnesses have been heard. 

"It is doubtful, however, whether imposing a restriction on disclosure until the end of the judicial investigation can be considered justified, especially in the context of lengthy litigation. If a judge decides to impose an obligation of secrecy, he must also state the reasons."

Workload issues

Kõve appealed to help from the justice ministry, and proposed reducing the workload at one of Estonia's busiest courts, Harju County Court, and harmonizing the workload with that of other courts. 

"Some types of cases are being considered for removal from Harju County Court ... which would result in them being distributed among all judges in the respective field across the country," Kõve said, adding it would allow for a more even distribution of cases, as well as more diverse and interesting work and better job retention in smaller courthouses nationwide.

The meeting also focused on digitalization, relevant to efforts to improve efficiency.

Criminal cases in particular have issues relating to the Harju court, Kõve said. Analysis, among other things, was needed on whether and how to reduce the share of oral proceedings in criminal proceedings, the non-duplication of pre-trial evidence in court hearings, and increasing the judge's leading role in adjudication, Kõve said.

At present court hearings can be declared either open or closed. For instance the recent hearing which sentenced former ski coach Mati Alaver to a suspended prison sentence and eighteen months probation period was closed. The issue more under scrutiny recently has been the extent to which judges have declared reporting on ongoing cases from inside the courtroom off-limits to the media in open hearings, rather than the existence of closed hearings.

Other relevant, high-profile cases include the long-running Edgar Savisaar corruption case, and the corruption trial of Port of Tallinn managers.

Estonia's legal system is organized into three main tiers, with the Supreme Court obviously at the top, followed by the circuit courts and the county courts.

Justice minister Raivo Aeg (Isamaa) said in December that there were no plans to change amends to the Code of Criminal Procedure regarding restrictions on media coverage in courtrooms.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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