Lawyer: Coalition attempting to give excessive powers to Health Board

A Riigikogu sitting during the emergency situation.
A Riigikogu sitting during the emergency situation. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Amends to two acts passing through the Riigikogu which would extend powers to state bodies such as the Health Board (Terviseamet) has provoked expert criticism, with one lawyer saying that excessive powers would be given to state agencies, under the cover of the emergency situation, due to expire in a few days.

The amends concern the Emergency Act and the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act.

Lawyer Leon Glikman says the rule of law, being as it is based on the separation of powers (i.e. between legislature, executive and judiciary-ed.), would mean that orders and prohibitions should be imposed by the Riigikogu.

Emergency situation expires May 17, replaced by less sever crisis situation

Since the emergency situation (eriolukord) was declared on March 12, orders have been imposed by the government (as per the emergency situation rules-ed.).

The emergency situation is due to expire at the end of May 17, and is to be replaced by a less severe, constitutionally-defined crisis situation (hädaolukord). The argument has been that the coalition is aiming to get legislation through ahead of this date which would increase the powers of state bodies such as the Health Board.

Leon Glikman says that the raft of bills noted above would transfer power to the Health Board and away from parliament, adding that the draft laws do not enumerate restrictions on this, in effect giving the board unlimited decision-making powers, including the right to close down businesses on health grounds.

"For example, the board can simply close a company and the decision-making process would be completely anonymous. We don't know what the board would have taken into account, whether the situation in fact requires the closure of the whole company," Glikman said, talking to ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" Monday night.

"[The draft bills] are a restriction of very fundamental rights, such as freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of enterprise. It should be completely incomprehensible that the health board or any other agency should now be guided by this," Glikman went on.

Limitations to restrictions of movement have also not been adequately set out, or in fact have been left unwritten, Glikman said.

Reform Party opposes

The opposition Reform Party has made similar criticisms of the draft, and also attempted to pass two amends at the Riiigikogu, only one of which passed, on Monday.

"In fact, we need to realize that whether we have an emergency, such as that at present, an emergency, which is then prescribed by law, or no situation at all," said Reform MP Signe Riisalo, a member of the Riigikogu's social affairs committee.

"It it is in the latter case – I.e. no [emergency] situation at all - that the health authority is being given the power to take very important restrictive decisions," she went on.

Reforms proposed amends only work in conjunction with each other, making a defective act either needing to be adopted or ripped up and started on again.

The issue is heightened by the fact that if the latter course is followed, the emergency situation would expire before a new law could be drafted.

The issue had already been questioned by the opposition in late April.

The crisis situation would not grant the government the right to continue issuing orders as it has been doing during the emergency situation.

Center Party MP: Checks and balances are there

Chair of the social affairs committee, Center Party MP Tõnis Mölder (Center is in the coalition) has rejected criticism that the draft would give too much power to the Health Board. 

Mõlder said agencies in general are supervised by the ministry under whose purview they lie, the ministry in turn is overseen by the government, which in turn is answerable to the Riigikogu.

"So the mechanism is there. Every official, when he or she makes decisions that can seriously infringe on people's fundamental rights, must have very clear starting points," Mölder said.

Mölder added that the Health Board would under the draft be given the right to make local closure decisions, such as the right to close a factory where there is a risk of infection, but when it comes to closing shopping centers, for instance, the decision is made by the government. 

The latter did indeed close shopping malls, save for a few essential service providers such as pharmacies and bank offices, from late March to the beginning of this week, in response to the pandemic.

The purpose of the bill is to put into one law rights and obligations which were previously in different laws and regulations, Mölder said. This would include quarantine and other aspects of restrictions.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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