The European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ) considers delayed judgements and backlogs a major threat to effective access to justice and thus to the rule of law. To increase awareness for the issue of timeliness, to deepen the understanding of causes and remedies, and to discuss recommendations for improvement, the ENCJ to date has organised two seminars.
It was deemed appropriate to organise the seminars with participants from countries within a region with comparable culture and legal traditions. The first seminar took place in April 2013 in Poland and involved Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Norway and Sweden. The second seminar took place at the Royal Courts of Justice in London in November of last year, and was organised for England and Wales, Scotland, Northern-Ireland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Austria.
To put the participants somewhat at ease, in his opening remarks in London the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the Baron Thomas of Cwmgiedd, remarked that the issue of backlogs is of all ages. ‘The Royal Courts of Justice opened in 1884 against the background of appalling delay in the English justice system’, he said. Adding that all legal systems have a tendency to become inflexible. In the plenary session Niels Grubbe, judge at the Danish Supreme Court, emphasised that justice delayed is justice denied. And he warned: ‘If we fail in the task of timely delivery of justice, others will take it from us.’ Solutions, according to the Danish judge, involve not just the Judiciary, but also the administrators, the government, the lawyers and the parties involved.
One way to improve timeliness is to introduce a far reaching quality and innovation programme, declared Julia Mendlik, acting district court President in the Netherlands. ‘Our aim is to reduce delay by 40%, aligning civil and administrative law procedures and implement complete digital access. Paper will be removed from the system’, she said. And she added: ‘The judges will be working flexibly. There will be active case management with the early preparation of cases and speedy written statements. It will require the cooperation of the lawyers, with flying brigades, a commitment from the judiciary, and the delegation to staff of simple procedural steps.’
Extra-judicial and judicial mediation may be a helpful way to improve timeliness too, although experiences in England, Ireland and Germany show mediation is not a cure-all and could be costly besides. A database of standard text led to greater speeds of process in Belgium, commented Justice of the Peace Vincent Bertouille at the High Council of Justice. Though, ‘the first problem was bringing everyone together; IT skills are not always present amongst the judiciary.’ The Belgian database only provides standard text, which therefore has to be adopted in special case, ‘and the procedure is in the control of clerks rather than judges.’
But whatever route a country takes, ‘timeliness does not depend just on legislation but on a whole-system approach to reform’, warned English Circuit Judge Rachel Karp. ‘Timeliness is wholly dependent on securing the required change in culture and the promulgation of a can-do attitude needed to shake judges out of their comfortable habits.’