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After Israel's reputed underworld kingpin Ze'ev Rosenstein was extradited to Florida on drugs charges at the beginning of the month, the media here was astonished by how speedily he was arraigned. The consensus was that in this country it takes incomparably longer to bring a detainee before a judge.
The impression that our wheels of justice grind exceedingly slowly was confirmed last week by the annual report of former Supreme Court Justice and current judicial system ombudswoman Tova Strasberg-Cohen. Her report considered 1,114 complaints submitted in 2005, of which 222 were found justified. Of the justified complaints, half dealt with proceedings dragged out - sometimes for years - beyond what can be tolerated as even marginally reasonable.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni herself filed some complaints against procrastinating judges. In one of the cases referred by Livni, a single judge was withholding verdicts on no fewer than 20 cases. This particular judge was the subject of numerous complaints throughout 2005. Finally in January 2006 she ruled on all her cases.
Strasberg-Cohen ascribes the excruciatingly prolonged proceedings, which she investigated in depth, to "repeated uncontrolled delays in fixing dates for court sessions. Often prearranged schedules are changed without so much as even scheduling new sittings." On average, according to the report, each judge daily postpones seven court sessions. By her calculations no fewer than 3,800 sessions are deferred each day in Israel's courts, with the exception of the Supreme Court.
One cited case pertains to court deliberations that began in 1996 but are yet to be completed. Strasberg-Cohen discovered that the files were passed from judge to judge and that scheduled court sessions weren't in fact held.
The ombudswoman characterized this as "intolerable." Yet even that isn't the worst she uncovered in this category. One Labor Court judge has yet to rule on a case pending for 17 years. The sides involved held their summations back in 1989. When Strasberg-Cohen inquired, she was told the "file cannot be found." Another judge, this time in Jerusalem District Court, failed to decide a case before her for 16 years.
Strasberg-Cohen's report names no names, but the legal community has reportedly identified the Labor Court judge as Elisheva Barak, wife of Supreme Court Chief-Justice Aharon Barak and the District Court judge as Michaela Shidlovsky-Or, wife of retired Supreme Court justice Theodore Or. This has not been disputed.
Shidlovsky-Or has announced her resignation. This, however, is of little consolation. Justice delayed is justice denied.
The courts offer no redress other than to recommend arbitration to more and more litigants. Since the costs of both mediation and arbitration are borne by the sides, this course of action is unsuitable for plaintiffs who can't afford the expense. This is justice for the privileged only.
In many cases hearings are scheduled intermittently, weeks apart. They are interrupted in the middle of crossexaminations, for instance, which have to be resumed after a long hiatus. Not only does this not serve the cause of justice, it subverts it.
In our non-jury system we trust judges to retain their impressions of witnesses for irrationally protracted periods.
Our judges, in fact, can hardly be trusted to remember anything about witnesses. Each must deal with at least 1,000 cases simultaneously and ends up juggling them. This is no paradigm of proper management.
Perhaps the time has come to copy the US system, which so astonished us in Rosenstein's case. American trials are conducted continuously, full day after full day. There is no reason preventing such a system from being implemented here. We can take leave of inefficient, though familiar, legal habits and overhaul the system - even if some vested interests are sure to be ruffled along the way.
This current situation is neither preordained nor immutable. Changing it may be an appropriate challenge for new-broom state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, who has announced his determination to name names and not allow anyone in high places to get away with anything. Our civic hygiene will not be purified until our courts are forced to respect others' time and abide by timetables just as ordinary taxpayers must.
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