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Opinion digest: Higher pay for prosecutors damages court system

Jüri Leppik.
Jüri Leppik. Source: (Postimees/Scanpix)

According to lawyer Jüri Leppik, the Ministry of Justice’s plan to raise prosecutors’ salaries to the level of those of judges is problematic, as it brings the system off balance. Judges’ pay needed to be higher than that of prosecutors, Leppik wrote in an opinion piece in daily Eesti Päevaleht.

A bill currently drafted by the Ministry of Justice calls for raising the salaries of district prosecutors that are part to court trials to the salary coefficient of judges at county and administrative courts, and to peg the salaries of chief and state prosecutors to those of judges at the district court level.

In other words, Leppik wrote, the prosecutors’ offices as a part of Estonia’s law enforcement wanted to be equal to the country’s judiciary, at least in terms of pay. “I see an attack on the authority of the judiciary,” Leppik said, adding that the prosecutors wanted to elevate themselves to the level of the judges by means of how much they got paid.

According to Leppik, the reason the ministry quotes for the step is that these days the prosecutor basically is in charge of a criminal investigation, makes most of the decisions leading up to formal charges, and that the beginning, the end, and the overall course of a court case depend on them.

The problem Leppik sees here is that more and more cases are moved away from the judiciary, and that they are increasingly decided outside the courts. Society’s understanding was that 90 percent of all cases were settled before they reached court, and the judiciary’s say in any of it had been reduced to a minimum, Leppik said.

The prosecutors were part of law enforcement, and with it part of the state’s executive power. With their increased meaning and increased pay, Leppik said, there was an attempt at setting them up as independent from the Ministry of Justice, and placing them at the same level—or in cases above—of those that eventually decided a case.

The matter wasn’t only about money, Leppik added, but in an appreciation for the separation of power, and the system as a whole.

“The justification that the prosecutor as a state official needs to be as intelligent as the judge in a case is demagoguery. All professionals have to be intelligent, and they need to have the necessary knowledge. If the state starts valuing an institution in the legal system more highly whose task it is to prepare a case and take it to court, this influences the independence of the court system in the long term,” Leppik wrote.

According to Leppik, what was really necessary was to review how money was distributed across the system, and to come up with a plan that in addition to reassessing the role of prosecutors also took into account lawyers in court, particularly those that offered legal help working for the state.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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