County courts not rushing to share Harju workload surplus

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The newly completed Harju County Courthouse. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

At least one of Estonia's four county court's is less than enthusiastic about a proposal to take on surplus workload from Harju County Court, the busiest chamber, ETV news show 'Aktuaalne kaamera' (AK) reported Tuesday night. Court procedures thus redistributed would include large volumes of mostly written processes, and not just the in-person hearings the public might be more familiar with.

Justice minister Maris Lauri (Reform) told AK that coronavirus considerations mean that moving around between courts too much: "Should be avoided ... In particular, written procedures which do not require the movement of people should be increased, or those cases where it is possible to hold remote sessions, as has actually been done a lot here during the pandemic."

No decision either way has been taken as yet, and the move would require extra funds for Harju County Court to hire additional judges – which Lauri ruled neither out nor in, adding a range of options which could boost courts' efficiency should be borne in mind.

Chair of Harju County Court Astrid Asi told AK that workloads had reached virtual meltdown in recent years.

"As of today, we already have more than 1,000 proceedings on civil matters, which have been pending for over a year, and this means that the number is growing all the time, which in turn means that people will be in an even worse situation [in future] than they are today," she said.

There are four county courts in Estonia, which together with the two administrative courts, make up the first tier of a three-level system. Harju County is by far the most populous region of Estonia, home to nearly half of the national population.

Harju County Court has the one central courthouse and 67 judges; Pärnu and Tartu county courts have fewer sitting judges combined, across nearly half-a-dozen courthouses.

Harju's courthouse is relatively new, however, having been opened for work in 2018.

However, Astrid Asi's counterpart at Pärnu County Court, Toomas Talviste said that a more permanent solution than passing work off on to his or other county courts and away from Tallinn was needed.

"With Pärnu County Court, for example, it is definitely the case that we have many small courthouses, which is not taken into account that most of our judges travel between these courthouses anyway, and it 's hard to imagine where to fit new aspects in between that," he said.

Whereas last year there were 447 civil cases pending on average per Harju County judge, AK reported, the average workload nationally is a little over 400 per judge. 

The figures for criminal cases alone were 384 per judge at Harju County Court, compared with 369 per judge nationally.

Astrid Asi added that the bulk of the redistributed cases, in her proposal, would be whose involving mostly written proceedings rather than in-person court hearings, which would serve to limit the additional burden on those courts receiving the new business.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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