Two courts in Estonia have agreed to share Harju County Court's work burden, in the interests of maintaining consistent justice processes nationwide and following a plea in April from the chair of the Harju court to help relieve the pressure of cases. The redistribution of cases concerns civil hearings only.
The justice ministry and the Council for the Administration of Justice (Kohtute haldamise nõukoda) state that it is: "Not even possible for courts to replace judges who are temporarily absent from service, just as staff replacement is an elementary aspect in any other sector in the public, as well as in the private, sector," adding regret over the current situation with the judiciary.
Chairs of Estonia's two circuit courts, Tallinn and Tartu, Tiina Pappel and Villem Lapimaa, announced Wednesday that civil cases scheduled for Harju County Court hearings can be referred to other courts, following a request from the county court's chair, Astrid Asi, to do just that in late April.
The county courts, of which there are four in Estonia, occupy, along with the two administrative courts, the first tier of the Estonian court hierarchy, followed by the two circuit courts on tier two, and finally the Supreme Court, which is based in Tartu.
The redistribution of work load will begin in early September and is forecast to last eight or nine months, ERR reports.
Lapimaa and Pappel stressed that, although no county court, or county judge, was short for work, a one-off, planned reassignment of cases was the only viable measure in the current situation which would allow the court system itself to ensure reasonable proceedings at all county courts.
Conversely, leaving Harju County Court and its judges to shoulder the burden alone would not be justifiable, they said, noting that the civil case burden was about six or seven times that of other first-tier courts, at well over a thousand pending cases, with that number likely to rise if things remain as they are.
Located on Lubja south of Tallinn city center, the Harju court covers the most populous region of the country and has been the scene of many high-profile cases in recent years, as well as its more quotidian workload.
The Harju Court overload will be divided between Viru and Pärnu county courts, with the first of these receiving twice the number of cases, at close to 400, as the second. Pärnu County Court had earlier expressed a lukewarm attitude towards taking on the extra work.
The Courts Act contains a provision for Tiina Pappel and Villem Lapimaa, the two circuit courts' chairs, to act as they have, following the request of their counterpart at Harju Court.
The types of cases involved include those related to medical negligence, employment law and contract law. So far as plaintiffs and defendants go, they will generally not have to travel to Rakvere or Pärnu, since the proceedings will continue in Tallinn, simply that the workload is being shared by the other two courts.
For much of the pandemic, many hearings have been conducted remotely, though at the time of writing, there are no restrictions on in-person hearings, though the courts can also settle cases this way or via written procedure ir required, it is reported.
Tiina Pappel and Villem Lapimaa say they stress that the measure is temporary, and retain control over the redistribution procedures.
The Council for the Administration of Justice which, together with the Ministry of Justice, made the statement on the situation regarding the judiciary in Estonia, is composed of the Supreme Court's chief justice, five more judges, two MPs , representatives of the Bar Association and the Prosecutor's Office, and justice chancellor Ülle Madise, or her plenipotentiary.
Editor: Andrew Whyte