Courts saw an increased workload in 2020, partly the result of the coronavirus pandemic, with civil matter hearings at a seven-year high, and cases resolved across all categories rising 7 percent on year.
The Estonian court system is organized in three tiers, with the Supreme Court – not covered in this piece – at the top, followed by two circuit courts based in Tallinn and Tartu, with the four county courts (Harju, Tartu, Pärnu and Viru (the latter based in Rakvere – ed.)) plus to administrative courts making up the first tier.
The two circuit courts, on the second tier, heard 2,815 civil cases, 1,874 criminal cases, 119 misdemeanor cases and 1,245 administrative appeals, BNS reports.
Harju County Court busiest of the four of its kind
Justice minister Maris Lauri (Reform) said: "It has to be stressed that 2020 was a very difficult and special year for courts due to the coronavirus crisis, which required that courts be innovative and search for solutions in order for the matters to be handled with quality.
"I express my appreciation for court managers, judges and court officials for this major effort. The court system set it as a goal that the administration of justice must continue, work was reorganized quickly and, in summary, even a bigger number of cases was resolved than in 2019," Lauri added in a statement, BNS reports.
Harju and Tartu county courts together hear about 75 percent of civil cases
County courts heard 33,658 civil matters in total in 2020 – a seven-year high, with Harju County court hearing about half of the cases and Tartu County Court about a quarter.
Of these cases, family affairs made up a little under 20 percent of the hearings with those relating to loans and credit agreements at about the same level, while cases relating to the placing of a person in hospital or assigning of guardianship to an adult with restricted active legal capacity were a little behind at 15 percent.
Overworked courts had been a common complaint even ahead of the arrival of the coronavirus.
Criminal case hearings fall
Criminal cases on the other hand fell, at least at county court level – by 6 percent on year to 2020.
Average duration of proceedings in civil matters stood at 95 days, around the same as in previous years, and seven percent more civil matters were resolved.
The increased workload meant the average substantive handling period in cases rose to 282 days, with lengthy proceedings, meaning those going on for over one year, also grew, to 16 percent of the total number of cases handled by courts, BNS reports.
Misdemeanor proceedings challenge to get heard quickly during pandemic
The number of cases referred to courts in misdemeanor proceedings was 5,952, with new solutions during the pandemic required – since such proceedings normally require rapid resolution.
The pandemic has also meant cases taking longer to resolve, Lauri went on, though this is more due to postponements of hearings rather than remote hearings themselves, which generally do not take any longer if the number of parties to the case is not too large.
She said: "Since cases handled under general procedure have been difficult to resolve and sittings have had to be postponed, the average duration of the resolving of cases under general procedure has become longer by 29 days on the average."
Administrative courts less affected by pandemic
"Under simplified procedure, and in other kinds of criminal procedure where it has been possible to hold sittings by means of video link or where the number of parties to the proceeding is small, the average duration of proceedings is about the same as last year."
The first-tier administrative courts held 2,737 cases, an 8 percent rise on year to 2020, but were less heavily affected by the pandemic, Lauri said, since written proceedings and video sittings had already been in wide use in these courts, she said.
Average hearing length (126 days) remained about the same, and the number of cases resolved rose by six percent on year to 2020, she said.
Editor: Andrew Whyte