Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise criticized officials' bureaucratic use of language, described Kafkaesque situations people have come across and suggested thinking about ensuring the subsistence of pensioners who will find themselves impoverished following the pension reform in her annual activity report to the Riigikogu.
Madise finds that bureaucratic use of language gets in the way of perceiving every person as valuable. "If we're dealing with clients and services, it is inevitably simpler to shrug: well, the client did not get the service. It would probably be difficult to process people out the door, so to speak, if officials had to phrase things the way they are; for example, saying that a mother and a child in need were left to their own devices. Perhaps the time has come again to talk about thing as they are and recognize those who speak logically, frankly and clearly and whose actions match those words," Madise said in her speech to provide an overview of her office's activities between September 1, 2018 and August 31, 2019.
Concerning the reasons for such behavior among officials, Madise found that they are not appreciated enough. "I believe the number one problem is the weakness of our front line. Do specialists working in agencies and inspectorates, schools and hospitals, child protection and care homes have a supportive work environment and pay that corresponds to the level of responsibility? I'm afraid not. And we have seen that is not the case. The difference between their salaries and those in ministries keeps widening. While the people on the front line can see how often ministries engage in replacement activity and how little there is in terms of results. It is hardly motivating," she said.
Kafkaesque situations solved
The justice chancellor described situations that she finds Kafkaesque in their absurdity – where a man mistakenly declared dead could not legalize himself or where a person with a mobility disability was told to use their ID-card to pay for the service to fix their faulty ID-card.
The most unbelievable and depressing is the story of a man whom no state agency deemed necessary to help live again. The person had been declared dead by default and wanted to reenter public life. Before he came to us, no one had told him what he needed to do to get there. It was a truly Kafkaesque journey. He was told, among other things, by the court office that a dead person cannot file an application," Madise said. "Next, it was found that his representative cannot produce one either as dead people cannot be represented. He almost lost hope. In the end, we had to help draw up the necessary paperwork and drop it off ourselves. The person is alive again today, paying taxes, and I believe they have health insurance again by now," the justice chancellor described.
"A rather similar situation involved a person whose ID-card was blocked. All of their money was in a bank account that could only be accessed using the ID-card. They were told they had to transfer the state fee before the ID-card could be opened again," Madise said, adding that the service needs to be free and done at the person's house. "We managed to take care of the problem in a few weeks. And I hope we improved the system. And yet, the person's mother who fought for them was told nonsense, given contradicting advice and subjected to absurd demands, including to log into their bank account using the blocked ID-card to pay the fee, for weeks on end," Madise said.
Pension reform could create need for additional social support instruments
Madise said, when answering questions of MPs, that she is keeping a "careful and attentive" eye on the planned pension reform and emphasized that minimum level of pensions needs to be ensured, using taxpayer-funded social benefits if necessary.
"Provided the Estonian constitution, according to which society needs to ensure minimum subsistence, is not amended and Estonia will not pull out of international agreements to the same effect, such plans need to consider how to help impoverished pensioners or put in place measures that will ensure pensions in the minimum volume of 40 percent of previous income," Madise told the Riigikogu on Tuesday. "Provided we will lose the kind of pension system that can ensure as many people as possible have dignified subsistence in their old age, the need to give these people much greater social benefits on the taxpayer's dime must be considered."
Madise said in her speech that taking care of family members must not put insensible strain on families and relatives cannot be expected to do more than they physically can. Local governments and the state must ensure social welfare, and no one must be forced to give up work, studies or helping their children because they are expected to take care of their parents, the justice chancellor emphasized.
The justice chancellor also pointed out that when evaluating officials' and politicians' professional mistakes, disapproval should be reserved for conscious violations and omissions deriving from laziness, fear and a stunted conscience. However, in cases where mistakes are the result of miscalculation of misinformation, officials should be recognized for finding the courage to correct them. It is fear of disapproval that motivates people to hide mistakes and protect officials' honor at the expense of people's well-being and peace of mind.
Other points by Madise suggest that the Political Parties Act needs legal clarity in terms of the consequences of accepting illicit donations, while the Riigikogu Election Act needs to be adjusted for similarly-sized electoral districts. The Citizenship Act needs greater clarity when it comes to citizenship by birth, provisions for loss of citizenship and conditions on which double citizenship is allowed and Estonian citizenship can be kept. The Public Transport Act should be complemented in terms of safety requirements for school buses and public transport wheelchair accessibility. Developers need a single set of rules for obligations to construct infrastructure.
According to the constitution, the justice chancellor is an independent institution the primary task of which is to make sure legislation is in accordance with the constitution. In addition, the justice chancellor holds the function of a legal ombudsman, solving complaints against state agencies and initializing constitutional review proceedings when necessary. The chancellor of justice also oversees state agencies that engage in phone, conversation and correspondence surveillance and collect and process personal data in other ways.
The justice chancellor's annual overview can be found here (link in Estonian).
Editor: Marcus Turovski