Thousands attended the funeral of Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Maurice Benatar, who was buried on Wednesday after committing suicide the previous day.
At the request of the family, reporters were asked not to attend.
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Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch issued a statement earlier in the day to the judges saying, “We are stunned and shocked by the death of our friend. The death of anyone in the family of judges is hard for us all, and particularly the death of Benatar, who took his life in tragic circumstances.”
In a suicide note he left behind, before wrapping a plastic bag around his head and suffocating to death, Benatar wrote that he was taking his life because of the overwhelming workload he faced.
One of the loudest complaints against the Israeli judicial system is the length of time it takes to conclude trials. For the past several years, Beinisch and the head of the Courts Administration, Judge Moshe Gal, have put strong emphasis on finishing trials faster.
The effect of this campaign has been to increase the workload on judges, particularly in the magistrate’s courts, and to increase the pressure on judges by the top echelon of the judicial system to work faster.
Beinisch referred to these developments, saying that “judicial work is certainly difficult in view of the heavy caseload which, as we make certain to point out on every occasion and every podium, is one of the highest in the West. The head of the Courts Administration and I are doing everything we can to ease the burden and make the work procedures more efficient.”
Beinisch pointed out that the president of Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, Shulamit Dotan, and Gal had tried to help Benatar handle his judicial responsibilities.
However, it is known that the two had been complaining to Benatar about his backlog of cases for several years and that they had suggested he resign from the judiciary.The Jerusalem Post
has learned that Benatar was offered enhanced compensation if he would step down.
Meanwhile, the daily Haaretz
reported that three weeks ago, Dotan had asked Benatar to take a break from hearing cases so that he could catch up on writing verdicts in the cases he had already heard.
This was reportedly meant as a warning that either he resign, or a complaint would be filed against him to the judicial ombudsman.
Benatar was due to give his answer in a few days, but chose to commit suicide instead.
The heads of the judicial system are, in the final analysis, caught between a rock and a hard place. Public criticism of the “dawdling” of the courts is pervasive and harsh. To diminish the criticism, the top echelon puts pressure on the judges to work faster, finish more cases and reduce the backlog. Then, when a judge like Benatar is unable to cope with the situation, the top echelon is attacked for being heartless.
Former justice minister Daniel Friedmann told the Post that he extracted a promise from the government of prime minister Ehud Olmert to add another 80 judges to the system. The addition was to be spread over several years and that number has not yet been reached, according to Friedmann.
Friedmann also established a new district court, currently located in Petah Tikva, to take some of the load off the busiest court in the country, the Tel Aviv District Court.
The two courts together have 62 judges, compared with 52 in Tel Aviv District Court before the Central District Court was established.
Friedmann added that there were other reasons for the tardiness of the courts. For example, lower court judges have begun to copy the practice of their peers on the Supreme Court by writing lengthy verdicts, a practice which prolongs the procedure.
He also blamed the state prosecution for exaggerating indictments by including marginal charges instead of restricting themselves to the key allegations.
He also charged that the prosecution includes unnecessarily long lists of witnesses, whose testimony also prolongs the judicial procedures. For example, in the trial of former MK Tzachi Hanegbi, three Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judges were tied up for many months hearing the case and writing the verdict.
Statistics from a report published by The Center for Public Management and Policy in 2007 make it clear that Israeli judges face a much harder task than their counterparts in other Western countries.
The researchers, Raanan Sulitzeanu- Keinan, Amnon Reichman and Prof. Eran Vigoda-Gadot, found that Israel ranked third highest among 17 countries in the number of cases that each judge must handle in a year. Taking into account those countries which allow part-time judges to handle cases, Israel moves up to second place.
The researchers also found a clear correlation between the budgets received by the judicial systems in each country, and the ratio of judges per population and their caseloads. In countries where the budget was higher, there were relatively more judges and each had a lighter caseload.
Nevertheless, Beinisch insists that even under current circumstances,
the judges can meet the challenge. Those who can’t, should accept that
fact and drop out, she added.
Recently, during a talk to members of the Jerusalem branch of the Israel
Bar, Beinisch said, “Not every person who wishes to be a judge
accurately assesses his ability to work under the conditions of pressure
demanded of all of us,” she said.
“Just this morning, a story appeared about a new judge who felt that he
could not stand the pressure and provide worthy service in his judicial
work. Indeed, every time I have the opportunity to meet new judges, and
in the ceremonies when they are sworn in, I tell them: The judge takes a
heavy burden upon himself, and in our work in particular, a very heavy
“However, it is not true to say that under these conditions a judge
cannot fulfill his commitment to his job as a public servant. But it is
very difficult and very demanding.”