Chief justice: Highly competitive judicial process limits open trials scope

Supreme Court Chief Justice Villu Kõve.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Villu Kõve. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

One of the factors that hinders the disclosure of judicial proceedings in Estonia may be the American-style, highly competitive judicial procedure that is applied, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Villu Kõve says.

Kõve told Vikerraadio show "Reporteritund" Tuesday that the allegations of non-disclosure mainly concern criminal cases, since civil and administrative proceedings do not provide much ground for complaint. "One issue that has a broader background is our criminal proceedings, because in general, all these disputes are about criminal proceedings," he explained.

"The reason may be the construction of our criminal proceedings as highly competitive in judicial proceedings. This means that preliminary investigation materials should be covered, the judge should be independent and start the case from scratch at the hearing. This is different from most other European countries. We have tried to bring American-style criminal proceedings here to Estonia. I myself am of the opinion that we have gone too far with that, and the judge should have a greater principle of inquiry and intervention – in that case, covering or not knowing the preliminary investigation materials would not be so important for the proceedings," the Chief Justice went on.

He gave the example of the Port of Tallinn court case, where journalists were forbidden to publish the witness statements until the end of the judicial investigation. "Here again there are procedural rules – the entire thing has to be replayed in court. It's terribly costly, terribly time-consuming and nerve-wracking. But to be able to do it, in the meantime restrictions have to be imposed so as not to write about it. Whether this ban is for one or two days or for a few weeks, does not matter. But if it lasts for two or three years, then there is a problem, and at the moment we do have a problem. In my opinion, these cases have also raised the question of whether criminal proceedings in this form are still reasonable for us."

Harju County Court has made two recent high-profile cases closed to public

During the "Reporteritund" programme, Kõve, deputy secretary general at the Ministry of Justice Viljar Peep, and Eesti Ekspress journalist Tarmo Vahter, discussed the issues of open trial. They relied on recent cases where Harju County Court has restricted the coverage of the corruption procedures of the ex-managers of the Port of Tallinn, and also did not want to provide the journalists with the files on the doping case that led to the conviction of Mati Alaver.

In December, based on a complaint from a journalist at Eesti Päevaleht, the Supreme Court lifted the restriction imposed on the coverage of the Port of Tallinn case, and also in the Alaver case, where journalists were allowed to inspect part of the file months after the litigation.

Peep spoke about the intention of the Ministry of Justice to develop a draft legislation on disclosure issues, but said he did not want to predict when that might reach the parliamentary procedure. "We're going to write it in a situation of conflicting expectations. It's going to be a difficult job," Peep said.

Kõve said that for some of the topics covered in the intention, consideration will be made on whether to do this in two stages, as some changes depend on information systems and their reorganization may take longer.

Estonia's court system, is organized into three tiers, with four county courts (Tallinn, Tartu, Pärnu and Viru) and two administrative courts (based in four courthouses, with Jõhvi and Pärnu hosting facilities as well as Tallinn and Tartu) making up the first tier, followed by the two circuit courts based in Tallinn and Tartu, and the Supreme Court, also based in Tartu, in the third tier.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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