Israeli criminal justice system 'overloaded,' needs reform - Gideon Sa'ar

There are several chronic issues afflicting the Israeli justice system, the former justice minister said in a press conference with party leader Benny Gantz.

Gideon Sa'ar at the announcement of a merger between New Hope and Blue and White, July 10, 2022.   (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
Gideon Sa'ar at the announcement of a merger between New Hope and Blue and White, July 10, 2022.

Parallel to ongoing judicial reform discussions, National Unity MK Gideon Sa’ar on Wednesday proposed a reform of the criminal justice system and the procedures of the courts to address an overloaded justice system and weak criminal rights.

In a press conference with National Unity leader Benny Gantz, Sa’ar said there were several chronic issues afflicting the justice system that directly and commonly impacted citizens.

“Today we have a rare opportunity with the attention of the public to problems of the system, and we need to present solutions and plans that will bring a change for the sake of the citizens,” Sa’ar said, referring to the controversy and political debate surrounding the coalition’s judicial reform proposals.

Sa'ar: Israel holds a "world record" of cases against its citizens

Chief among these issues Sa’ar said were harming citizens was a court system clogged with too many cases, and unable to properly address them. Israel held a “world record” of cases against citizens, he said, adding “each court cannot give the proper attention to each case, which damages justice.”

One method he proposed to reduce congestion caused by a plethora of cases was to shift the process of minor cases to an administrative body. There were regulatory business matters that the National Unity MK said were often violated accidentally and could be dealt with administratively rather than judicially as if they were done with criminal intent. There were also far too many petty civil disputes that could be dealt with in a far more efficient matter outside of court, such as lawsuits over minor car crashes. Minor criminal offenses should also be drawn away from the courts to reduce their burden and allow them to concentrate on important crimes.

National Unity Party chairman Benny Gantz at the Knesset on April 19, 2023 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)National Unity Party chairman Benny Gantz at the Knesset on April 19, 2023 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“Take all the minor offenses and transfer them to an administrative procedure resulting in fines, instead of the process in which a person is presented with an indictment, given a criminal offense and be saddled with lifelong consequences,” he said.

Case congestion was not just a matter of too many cases, but the time spent on each proceeding, Sa’ar indicated. Shorter turnarounds on decision times were needed by judges and the attorney-general’s officer. While usually the responses and rulings were given within reasonable time periods, Sa’ar said, people often wait long for decisions, by which the conditions of their lives have often changed without solving the problem.

Israel needs more judges, Sa'ar charges

Timing issues and the overload of cases could be alleviated by more judges, Sa’ar suggested, saying that the number of judges in Israel was below the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. He called for a multi-year plan to bring in more judges, echoing a call by President Isaac Herzog in his own five-point plan for the judicial reforms. Sa’ar did not elaborate on how recruitment and appointment would work.

He also called for the strengthening of the audit of the State Attorney’s Office, adding that the independence of prosecutor bodies is important, but the government audits of the offices were too weak.

Citizens suffered not just from delays in the court, but also a lack of rights and protections, according to Sa’ar, who added that citizens arrive to court suspected, guilty and weak before one of the strongest systems in the country.

The MK called to enshrine protections and rights into law that are present in other democracies through Basic Law: Rights in the Criminal Process. Many of the rights are similar to that of the United States’ Sixth Amendment, which outlines basic rights in criminal proceedings. The Basic Law passed first reading in the previous Knesset, Sa’ar noted.

According to its text, it would establish rights such as the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, every person being entitled to a fair criminal trial that they could attend, and to legal representation. In addition, no one would be able to be held liable in the absence of guilt, or for the acts of another person. Citizens would also have a written right not to incriminate themselves in criminal investigation, and not to testify.

Regarding the arrest of suspects, the Basic Law would hold that arrests would need to be performed in a manner that preserved the dignity of the detainee, and they would have the right to be informed as to why they were being arrested and to be brought to trial as soon as possible. Those who do not know Hebrew would have proper accommodations throughout the legal process.

Rights regarding punishment would be instituted under the Basic Law. People would not be able to be punished for an offense for which there was no law explicitly criminalizing. Suspects wouldn’t be able to be held criminally liable for acts and omissions unless they were explicitly prohibited, and no crime could be more severe than that prescribed in the law.

At the start of the press conference, Gantz said that the government needed to improve the system’s service for citizens.

“It is unacceptable in my eyes to start a reform of the judicial system without touching on what really matters to citizens,” said Gantz. He accused the coalition’s judicial reform of only addressing control of the institutions and didn’t change things that truly mattered to voters.

While Gantz said that even during days of mourning, National Unity continued the “fight for Israeli democracy,” and he called on politicians to respect bereaved families as they commemorated Remembrance Day.