Bill to organize court judges by specialty at second reading

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

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Villu Kõve says that an under-process legislative amendment which would reform the court system and divide judges up by legal specialty is both reasonable and inevitable.

Kõve told ERR on Monday that: "I think this is viable, at least if done sensibly. While I think it is possible that it doesn't turn out that way, with the proper planning, it is reasonable."

"In my opinion, this bill aims to transition from a territorial-based management of the courts to a content-based one; or let's say competence-based management. This is the biggest change they want to make," Kõve went on, calling this change "inevitable."

This was because the courts no longer function the way they had 30 years ago, or even a decade ago, he added.

Cases are becoming more and more complex, leading to more specialization and fewer judges who can deal with everything universally.

"After all, the idea of ​​this bill is to have these types of sectoral working groups which would specialize, for example, in bankruptcy law, child law, certain serious crimes etc. I personally think that this is reasonable," he went on.

The bill to amend the Courts Act is facing its second reading at the Riigikogu, and would require, addording to its explanatory memo, for judges: "To apply for positions in the civil department or the criminal department of a county court and the administrative, civil or criminal panel of a district court. In other words, the draft provides for the specialization of judges in the administrative, civil or criminal fields."

No change will be made to the location of courthouses and their function so far as the public goes.

The amendment also relates to: "A situation where many judges no longer live in the regions where they are actually appointed to as judges, but travel to different regions. This change has already taken place in practice," Judge Kõve said.

Social Democrat (SDE) MP and chair of the Riigikogu's Constitutional Committee, Eduard Odinets, said that he wants to reach the adoption of the amendments to the law during current Riigikogu session.

"I don't think that we will be able to accept it before the end of the year, but I will still try, so that work which lasted for several years on amending the Courts Act have not been wasted," Odinets said. 

The XIV Riigikogu is due to dissolve with the general election on Margh 5 nest year, while it is a norm that any bills pending at that point fall out of procedure altogether.

"Regarding the entry into force, I think that in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice we will find a date in the spring, so that the courts have time to prepare for the changes," Odinets added, and said the amendments could enter into force earlier than the beginning of 2024.

The constitutional committee met Monday to discuss the issue, with representatives of the Ministry of Justice, and of all three tiers of the Estonian court system all present.

Odinets, who chaired the meeting, said that the representatives of all the courts supported the bill, with just some small details requiring discussion.

This does not mean that there is total unanimity however, Odinets went on, citing the Association of Estonian Judges, which he said has its doubts about the amendments.

This was often the case with bills, he added, and compromise can be met going into this legislative amendment's second reading.

Odinets rejected a claim that a defendant may already know very precisely in advance which judge will be hearing their case and can somehow influence the judge as a result.

Several judges will be found within the same specialty, he said, while the same computer-based system for allocating judges to cases will remain in place.

There are four county courts in Estonia, across 15 courthouses, which, together with the two administrative courts (working in four courthouses), make up the first tier of the system. There are two second-tier circuit courts, in Tallinn and Tartu; the Supreme Court is based in Tartu.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots

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