Japan: a land of many courts and relatively few judges

The Japan Times has an interesting article on the relatively small number of formal judges in that country, given its large number of courts. Japan has over 1,000 courts within its judicial hierarchy, but fewer than 4,000 total judges. And many of those judges have mostly administrative, as oppossed to courtroom, roles. That poses an challenging question for a country which works to take many cases to trial: how are there enough judges to hold all the trials guaranteed under the law?

The answer lies in a combination of (1) a broad network of judicial assistants, many of whom serve as shadow judges; and (2) resolving cases short of a full-blown trial. As the article explains:

How do they manage it? They get a lot of help; there are approximately 10,000 judicial clerks (shokikan) who play a key role in case management and documentation. Those with plenty of experience might well be called “magistrates” in that they effectively run some proceedings, such as bankruptcy and enforcement matters, where the need for formal judicial determinations of fact or law is limited. Some even end up as summary court judges.

In some family and civil proceedings, lawyers are also used as part-time “judges” (though they are not referred to by that term). Family and civil courts also rely on thousands of part-time conciliators from the neighboring community (including members of the local bar association) to help disputing parties arrive at mediated settlements. District courts also host labor tribunals that resolve labor cases using a mixed panel of a real judge and representatives of both sides of the employment relationship.

Still, most these proceedings are not “trials,” the right to which is supposedly guaranteed by Article 32 of the Constitution. In English, this bit of the charter appears to guarantee “the right of access to the courts,” but in Japanese it actually refers to “the right to a trial in a court.” That many cases are not actually trials is convenient because it means they can be resolved in closed proceedings (since constitutionally only “trials” must be conducted in open court) with fewer due-process protections.

Even when a case is or becomes a full-blown trial, it is not uncommon to hear lawyers complaining about judges cutting corners in civil cases to get them off their docket. This can often involve pressuring parties to settle. Some may be tempted to attribute this to cultural factors, but settlement is also just easier for judges — they don’t have to write a judgment or worry about being overturned on appeal.

The astute reader will identify many similarities to the current state of the American civil justice system, for better or for worse.

Israel cracks down on ex parte communications between judges and prosecutors

In the wake of a high-profile scandal in which prosecutors in a major corruption case exchanged private text messages with a judge about its planned strategy, Israel’s Supreme Court has announced new rules to prevent further one-sided communications.

Under the new rules all contact between the judge and the investigative and prosecuting bodies will only be made during court hearings. Aside from in the courtroom, no direct requests are to be made of judges, but rather are to be filled through the court administration.

This makes a great deal of sense, and gives the court system a chance to rebuild whatever public legitimacy it has lost from the scandal.

EU turns up heat on Poland over judicial reforms

The European Union is entering uncharted waters as it deals with a threat to the judiciary coming from one of its own:

The executive European Commission has triggered a punitive procedure against Poland for weakening the rule of law, the first time it has used the provision. Tuesday’s meeting will see European affairs and foreign ministers from the other 27 EU states quiz their Polish counterpart.

“The Polish government has the right to reform the judiciary as long as this does not go at the expense of the independence of the judiciary,” said the Commission’s deputy head, Frans Timmermans, who is leading the case against Warsaw.

This will not be resolved quickly or quietly.

Poland continues political intimidation of judges

Last summer, the world watched as Poland’s ruling PiS (Law and Justice) Party instituted a series of “reforms” designed to intimidate or replace much of the state’s judiciary. The European Union has continued to put pressure on Polish authorities to revitalize judicial independence, but apparently the crackdown continues.

The Guardian reports that three high-profile Polish judges have complained of state-sponsored political intimidation:

Judges involved in politically sensitive cases or who have expressed opposition to threats to judicial independence have told the Guardian they are frequently threatened with disciplinary proceedings and even criminal charges, and in many cases are subjected to allegations of corruption and hate campaigns orchestrated by leading PiS politicians.

“I became an enemy of the state,” said Waldemar Żurek, a district court judge in the southern city of Kraków, who served as spokesman for the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the body that appoints and disciplines Polish judges, until it was taken over by government appointees this year.

As the public face of the KRS’s attempts to argue for judicial independence, Żurek received hundreds of abusive and threatening messages to his work phone after false allegations about his personal life were published in pro-government media outlets. Members of his family were also targeted.

Judicial independence is perpetually fragile–in every country, and in every era.

Israel’s Supreme Court hires media consultant

The Israeli Supreme Court has hired a media consultant for the first time. The consultant’s role will include helping Chief Justice Esther Hayut coordinate the work of various spokespeople throughout the court system.

Some in Israel are painting this as a gimmick to improve the legitimacy of the court system through public relations. But media adviser is a pretty common role in the United States, where many state and local courts have public information officers. It strikes me as an entirely reasonable move in a country with a sophisticated media and fast-moving news cycle.

Irish Cabinet assents to court plea for more judges

The Irish Cabinet has approved the appointment of four judges–three to the Court of Appeal and one to the High Court–after a personal plea from the new President of the Court of Appeal George Birmingham.

The appointments were made relatively smoothly, after Transport Minister Shane Ross assented to the decision. Ross has blocked appointments in the past and has pushed for a new Judicial Appointments Commission on the grounds that the appointment process itself is broken.

The desperate need for new judges to keep up with the courts’ work seemed to be key to the decision:

[T]hree things have diminished Mr Ross’s sway – the pressing need for more judges in some courts, without which court business has been seriously affected; the lack of support for Mr Ross among his Independent Alliance colleagues, who have made it clear to him and to the rest of their Government colleagues that while they support Mr Ross, they are not prepared to make it an issue which threatens the future of the Government; and the advent as Minister of Charlie Flanagan, who is of a less patient nature than his predecessor Frances Fitzgerald.

Mr Flanagan has made it clear that if the courts need judges, he sees it as his responsibility to bring nominations to Government.

Several East African courts will digitize services, with help from Microsoft

From the story:

Microsoft and Strathmore University School of Law have devised a partnership that will see key strides made in the manner East Africa’s judicial systems operate. Named the ‘Policy Innovation Series’, the program targets to digitize the region’s judicial processes, systems, and their overall functions. The policy and discussion are in line with previously set goals that purpose to digitize local systems – an activity that has been tasked to government agencies, the justice system, and the private sector.

***

The partnership will digitize case management systems, e-filing processes, document management systems and courtroom applications such as audiovisual and transcriptions processes.

The current system involves so much paperwork and manual processing, that merely filing a lawsuit can take three months. Hopefully this program will vastly improve the efficient administration of justice.