Former prosecutor: Lay judges not valued very highly in Estonia

Norman Aas.
Norman Aas. Source: ERR

While the institution of lay judges in Estonia need not be abolished, the system requires an overhaul and better support from the state and from the judiciary and courts, former prosecutor general Norman Aas says.

Aas made his remarks following the winding up of the Port of Tallinn corruption trial, which began in 2019 but had to go back to square one earlier this week, after a lay judge withdrew.

Estonia does not have a jury service akin to that of the U.S. or U.K., but lay judges, drawn as they are from members of the public, could be seen as the nearest comparable institution.

They are generally used in criminal cases, and in practice are often older people, due in part to the lengthy time commitment cases like the Port of Tallinn hearing entail.

Aas, now a lawyer, says the question of whether a lay judge is still required, in lengthier processes where serious crimes against the person are not the issue, needs to be resolved.

"In their case, maybe the system should be changed," Aas told ETV morning show "Terevisioon" Thursday.

However, if the desire is to extend the system of lay judges to civil cases, for instance, then the institution as a whole should be reformed, more younger people should be involved and the reward system should be put in order, Aas went on.

"We're realists; if a young person wants to be a lay judge, then goes to their employer saying 'I'm going to sit at a hearing process and will be away from work for 100 days'; well that it doesn't fit into the working life of most people."

This should not be taken to mean that lay judges do not have any value whatsoever, he went on, adding they are used by many countries around the world and that they inject somewhat of the ordinary person's view into the judicial system – though, he conceded, that sounds nicer in theory than it can turn out to be in practice.

Statistically speaking, however, there are not major issues with the practice in Estonia; simply the recent collapse of the Port of Tallinn case ended up being the subject of major media attention.

Indeed, the main issue is simply the advanced age of many lay judges – while retirees, for instance, not be hampered with the issue of having to explain their absence to an employer, not only can they have to step down from a case, as happened earlier this week, but also the remuneration – at €4.30 per hour, is lower than that which young people can obtain working at a fast food outlet, for instance, Aas said.

Overall, the judiciary does not highly value the presence of lay judges, and the numbers are dwindling, Aas went on.

First-tier Harju County Court chair Astrid Asi, wrote in an opinion piece published by ERR that it was high time to review the role of lay judges in criminal proceedings, and, as one option, possibly even dispensing with them altogether.

Aas added that the Estonian state does not provide that much support to lay judges, compared with Finland, where the institution is quite strongly relied upon.

Latvia dispensed with the practice over a decade ago, he said; Lithuania, on the other hand, has moved in the opposite direction and is now bringing lay judges back.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mirjam Mäekivi

Source: 'Terevisioon', interviewer: Reimo Sildvee.

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