'Complaints against judges are down, but problems remain'

Judicial ombudsman, Eliezer Goldberg, said complaints at 866, down from 1,003 in 2009 (13.6 percent drop); too early to tell if marks beginning of trend.

high court panel citizenship law 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
high court panel citizenship law 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The number of complaints against judges is down in comparison to last year’s figure, according to the 2010 annual report of the judicial ombudsman, Eliezer Goldberg, submitted on Tuesday.
In a press conference at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, Goldberg said that he was encouraged by the drop in the total number of complaints, 866, down from 1,003 in 2009 (a 13.6 percent drop,) but that only time would tell whether it was a developing trend or a singular event.
The largest number of complaints in 2010, 43%, was over the dragging out of legal processes by judges. The report spoke of cases that dragged on for years, in many instances unnecessarily.
“The burden on the courts is well known, but I believe that a distinction must be made between cases that drag on because of work overload and those that drag on because of improper handling,” said Goldberg.
Goldberg said that he had submitted recommendations to the Justice Ministry on possible methods to reduce the burden on the courts within two or three years, partially by sending cases to external arbitration.
The most dramatic proposal Goldberg made was to do away with the Small Claims Court. Goldberg said that these courts did a disservice to the judiciary because they left citizens with the wrong impression of the justice system.
“I don’t see why a judge should sit and try cases over NIS 1,500 in disputed refunds. Though it may be significant to the suing party, the nature of the hearings is such that the citizen leaves the courtroom feeling like he or she didn’t receive a fair trial. In my eyes there is no reason that an arbitrating lawyer can’t settle such cases, freeing up judges,” said Goldberg.
The second major type of complaint was about judges’ behavior in court and in writing verdicts.
“When I read some of the complaints, I can’t understand how the judge ever made it to the bench,” said Goldberg.
In the report Goldberg gave several examples of improper behavior by judges, including an instance where a judge referred to a defendant as “that character,” a case where a judge referred to a plaintiff as being as stubborn as “Captain Ahab” and a case where a plaintiff is described in a judge’s decision as racist. In all the examples, the complaints were investigated and found to be justified.
One of the most severe cases involved a recently appointed judge. The complaint was filed by a woman whom the judge – in his capacity as a lawyer before his appointment – ordered an expert opinion from, but failed to pay. The woman was eventually forced to sue the man and even hire debt collectors to get the money out of him.
Goldberg said that he wanted to see stricter selection criteria placed on judges in order to prevent as much as possible embarrassing and unbecoming situations.
He also said that he wanted the ombudsman’s authorities expanded to include also inspections of judges when they are off duty. He said that, despite resistance to the idea on the part of the judges, it was a necessary and justifiable request.
He cited an example of a judge who wrote a letter to have a traffic violation canceled using his office’s letterhead.
“Such a deed is unbecoming of a judge and should be inspected even if it was done while he was not in his capacity as judge,” said Goldberg.
According to the report, the court that received the most complaints relative to the number of cases it heard was the Family Court.
Out of a total of 866 complaints submitted in 2010, 618 were investigated and 116 of them were found to be justified.
The Courts Authority said in response to the report’s findings that Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch received and read the report and would work to remedy the situation where necessary.
“The president expressed regret at the number of complaints that were determined as justified, but it must be kept in mind that nearly all of them had to do with dragging on of cases, and that in this area there are many objective constraints,” read the statement.
“On every judge’s desk the number of cases is substantially larger than that of judges in other Western countries. The judges are required to carry their burden without the possibility of sharing it with another person. The justice system is making great efforts to internally improve the situation, though that is not enough in order to solve all the problems,” said Beinisch.