In search of reasonable time… of court proceedings: HFHR publishes a report on judicial backlogs
♦ The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has published another report on the excessive length of court proceedings.
♦ Although most of the changes introduced to the general system of common courts are officially justified as means designed to accelerate judicial proceedings, protracted trials have remained a major weakness of the justice system.
♦ The lack of public access to the Ministry of Justice data on the duration of court proceedings in 2019 and 2020 impedes a fact-based and informed discussion about the judicial reforms.
♦ The prolonged duration of court proceedings is undoubtedly a consequence of the increasing number of matters brought to the courts (in 2010, ca. 13 million suits were filed, in 2018 – approx. 15 million), their complexity, as well as the number of judicial vacancies (773 at the end of 2020).
♦ Since 2016, the number of complaints against the excessive length of proceedings has been rising again (from 16,508 in 2016 to 18,168 in 2018). Also, already in the first half of 2019, 10,175 such complaints were submitted.
♦ According to the Ministry of Justice, the litigants most frequently complained about the inactivity of the courts in taking procedural steps. In 2018 alone, nearly 8,000 complaints based on that ground were submitted to common courts.
The average value of an award of compensation for the excessive length of proceedings adjudged by courts of appeal and regional courts in 2010-2018 was relatively constant and ranged from PLN 2,752 to PLN 3,324.
♦ Compensation awards remain modest, which, as lawyers point out, is one of the reasons why litigants are discouraged from seeking relief.
Justice delayed, justice denied?
Obtaining a judicial decision within a reasonable period is necessary for having fair and efficient proceedings, which, in turn, is necessary to ensure respect for human rights and freedoms. A court ruling issued after a long period most often satisfies neither of the parties, regardless of how just it is. Instead, it evokes a reflection on the conditions of the state and its governance. It also creates resentment towards the courts and a sense of injustice on the part of “consumers” of the justice system. The above, perhaps trivial, observations underlie the formulation of Article 6 ECHR, which refers to the very notion of a hearing dealt with “within a reasonable time”.
In search of reasonable time… of court proceedings
In its latest report, In search of reasonable time… of court proceedings, the HFHR tries to answer the question about the present state of exercise of the above-described right to have one’s case examined within a reasonable time. The starting point for the discussion is the actions taken by the Polish authorities in the aftermath of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Rutkowski and Others v. Poland. In July 2020, five years passed since its delivery.
An incomplete diagnosis
The Rutkowski judgment forced Poland to make changes in law and sparked another debate on the problem of excessively lengthy proceedings in Poland. However, a reliable assessment of the problem is currently impossible as the Ministry of Justice does not publish the most recent data on the length of court proceedings and the number of complaints against the excessive length of proceedings. The latest available data cover the first six months of 2019. Furthermore, the HFHR was unable to obtain more up-to-date information through access to public information requests sent to the Ministry.
Based on the scarce available information, one can conclude that the problem of protracted court proceedings has not been resolved in recent years. Since 2015, the average duration of a trial before a regional court has remained at the same level of ca. 8 months. On the other hand, the average length of a trial before a district court has increased, from 4 to more than 5 months. In the 2011-2018 period, the longest proceedings observed in regional courts were those conducted in employment cases, which lasted from 9.9 to 14 months. The other category of particularly lengthy proceedings was criminal cases, which lasted from 7.6 to 10.3 months. Civil cases lasted the shortest – from 6.8 to 7.8 months. In 2011-2018, the longest first instance proceedings pending before district courts were insurance cases (7.1-10.9 months). The second most time-consuming cases were employment matters, which were resolved by district courts over the period of between 6.3 to 9.5 months. District courts most quickly dealt with criminal cases (from 3.3 to 3.6 months). Notably, however, these figures provide only a partial picture of the actual duration of trials in Poland, as, first, they concern only the first instance courts and, second, the figures given are averages.
Causes of judicial backlogs
There are certainly many causes of the excessively lengthy court proceedings. The duration of proceedings is influenced, among others, by the number of new cases brought to the courts (in 2010, approx. 13 million, and in 2018, approx. 15 million), their complexity, the system of appointing experts, litigants’ behaviour, case management practices applied by judges, support from clerks and court employees, as well as the overall management of the court’s work. The number of judicial vacancies (at the end of 2020, the Ministry of Justice recorded 773 vacancies and their number has remained at a similar level since 2018) and the practice of delegating judges to perform administrative duties in the Ministry of Justice and its subordinate institutions (at the end of December 2020 – 168 judges were so delegated) also have an impact on the functioning of the justice system.
No prevention or cure
The legislative changes introduced in recent years have failed to materially increase the effectiveness of the complaint against the excessive length of proceedings. Above all, since 2016, the number of such complaints have been rising again (from 16,508 in 2016 to 18,168 in 2018). Moreover, already in the first half of 2019, 10,175 such complaints were submitted. The statistics of the Ministry of Justice show that the litigants most frequently complained about the inactivity of the courts in taking procedural steps. In 2018 alone, nearly 8,000 complaints based on that ground were submitted to common courts. Many complaints also concerned the excessive length of enforcement proceedings.
The average value of an award of compensation for the excessive length of proceedings adjudged by courts of appeal and regional courts in 2010-2018 was relatively constant and ranged from PLN 2,752 to PLN 3,324. Currently available data show that the value of average compensation granted in the first six months of 2019 was similar. Consequently, compensation awards remain modest, which, as lawyers point out, is one of the reasons why litigants are discouraged from seeking relief. To find out more about the opinions of lawyers, use this link.
A change is needed
The improving of efficiency of the justice system certainly requires genuine and systemic reforms.
According to the authors of the report, the following steps are necessary:
- The law-making process in the area of justice should be preceded by extensive discussions with scholars and professionals, as well as broad public consultations.
- The minimum pecuniary award for excessively lengthy proceedings (PLN 500 each year of the proceedings’ duration) should be increased at least to an amount consistent with the standard set by the ECtHR in Apicella v Italy (PLN 1,000 to PLN 1,500).
- Judicial vacancies will be filled and the practice of frequent transfers of judges between different divisions of their court should be discontinued.
- The courts should receive more funding to increase the impact of new technologies and electronic tools on the conduct of proceedings.
- Judges should receive appropriate education and training in the following areas: the standards of the European Court of Human Rights, managing and ensuring compliance by parties and experts, using new technologies to expedite proceedings without compromising their integrity.
A swift but independent court needed
It is worth remembering that, as the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe emphasised in its recent decision of 4 June 2020, measures aimed at speeding up proceedings must, at the same time, respect the principle of the independence of the judiciary. The proposals and recommendations outlined in the report published today seem to be useful in introducing such measures.