Panel holds meeting on judges’ workload following suicide

Justice Minister Neeman: In his death Benatar commanded us to live.

David Rotem 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
David Rotem 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
During a special hearing called following the suicide of Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Maurice Benatar a week ago, the Knesset Law Committee heard on Monday from the heads of the judicial system about the critical need for comprehensive changes to the way they work.
The judge had written in his suicide note that one of the things that drove him to the brink was work overload.
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“In his death he commanded us to live. Maybe his death will infuse new life into the justice system,” Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman said.
A clear message that arose from the meeting, which was attended by the justice minister, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, Courts Administration head Judge Moshe Gal and courts ombudsman Justice (ret.) Eliezer Goldberg, was the need for additional judges to help carry the load.
“The number of open court cases per capita in Israel is the highest in the world,” said the justice minister, “and so is the number of lawyers. Comprehensive changes must be made to the system, changes that will touch on each and every element.”
Neeman said that during his tenure as justice minister, 120 judges were appointed after nearly half a decade where no new judges entered the system. Neeman said, however, that filling open positions was not enough and additional measures were necessary.
“For years the justice system has been accused of dragging out judicial processes,” Beinisch said. “It isn’t foot-dragging, it’s overload. Judges aren’t factory workers and their work cannot be measured by their output. The additions that we receive are nothing but patches on a hole-filled fabric – they won’t solve the problems.
“In Israel the judicial branch is independent in its decisions, but is not independent when it comes to budgets. We need the executive branch to fulfill the system’s targets. That won’t happen unless there is a real change,” she said.
“Today judges adjust to the situation at the expense of their families and personal lives. It is vital that the adjustment doesn’t come at justice’s expense,” Beinisch said.
According to Gal, Israeli courts are among the most overburdened in the world. Figures compiled by the courts administration reveal that an average magistrate’s court judge works on 1,350 cases a year and a district court judge works on 400.
“In recent years the burden has substantially increased. Close to 70 judges are currently working on a single case, simply because they are ‘megacases,’” Gal said.
“The solution is to decide what the level of service we want to give Israeli citizens and set targets accordingly. The efforts that the system is carrying out internally can improve things by 20-30 percent. If we want real change, and such change is necessary, we have to take other actions.”
“In a democratic government justice costs money,” said Gal. “When the state and the government want to change priorities they know how to do so.”
Judge Varda Alshech, who chairs the organization representing judges, said that the burden on Israeli judges was twice that of the world average and that the job was demanding and insufficiently rewarding.
Alshech said that judges’ pensions are too low and that many cannot afford to retire, even though they can no longer handle the workload.
“A judge’s work doesn’t end in the courtroom,” she said. “Even when they are not in court, they are busy in their chambers reading and writing and that needs to be taken into account when setting budgets.
“New electronic systems have enabled judges to do some of their work from home, but you can’t solve the problem by telling judges to dedicate 24 hours a day to their work. We have families too,” Alshech said.
The judges and MKs then started arguing with the Finance Ministry representatives, who said that the problems in the justice system could be solved by internal reforms and who presented figures that said that the ratio of judges to citizens was on par with most Western countries.
“In the past decade the number of judges has doubled. The justice system’s budget has grown more than that of any other government ministry,” deputy budget supervisor Rotem Peleg said.
Beinisch said that the money that the Treasury planned to pay an external company to examine the problems in the system could be put to better use by the system itself.
Committee chairman David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) said that he would do everything in his power to see to it that the necessary changes are made.
“I will be your spokesman,” he told the judges. “You are judges and are constrained in what you can do and say. I am a politician and I can find a way to make the Treasury cooperate.”