Supreme Court President stops Neeman arbitration reform

Some are claiming proposed reform is a cunning and subtle attempt to undermine the judicial system’s independence.

Supreme Court President Asher Grunis 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Supreme Court President Asher Grunis 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday decided to ask the Justice Ministry to respond to opposition by Supreme Court President Asher Dan Grunis against what has emerged as a controversial reform for enlarging the role of arbitrators in resolving litigation of sums under NIS 2.5 million.
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman initiated the bill, purportedly to reduce the NIS 1.4 million in costs to magistrate court judges having to handle certain cases and give the judges relief from what many acknowledge is an unmanageable caseload.
Private arbitrators usually get paid by the parties involved, which would reduce costs for the state.
Moreover, moving the cases out of the courts would make the number of cases on the docket more manageable.
But a coalition of opposition, including Grunis, members of Knesset, the Israel Bar Association, senior jurists and major NGOs like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has formed against the reform.
Some are claiming it is a cunning and subtle attempt to undermine the judicial system’s independence and close the courts from being an avenue to prevent overreaching by the state on civil liberties.
Neeman is known for prior initiatives to empower the executive and legislative branches at the expense of the judiciary.
Others such as Grunis do not accuse Neeman of any hidden agendas, but merely state that the reform was not well-thought out, and that well-intentioned or not, it could have major negative constitutional consequences for judicial independence, due process and access to judicial relief.
The most controversial procedural aspect of the reform would be that courts could compel litigants to go to arbitration without the parties’ permission. The parties must normally agree to arbitration.
ACRI attorney Anne Suciu wrote a position paper warning that the bill would “lead to the de facto privatization of the Israeli legal system on an unprecedented scale and would severely damage the existence of an independent judicial system.”
Suciu also wrote that judges in Israel “undergo a strict selection process and are bound by a long list of restrictions intended to ensure their impartiality,” whereas the main condition for appointing lawyers as arbitrators is merely seven-years seniority.
Seven-years seniority does nothing to ensure impartiality argued Suciu. Rather, the qualifications for arbitrators at most ensure competence. ACRI also noted that growing criticism of the arbitration process in some countries led to legislative initiatives that seek to protect the weaker parties involved.
The mere fact that courts are overburdened and underfunded does not mean that private arbitration is the only solution, said ACRI.
Rather, it would encourage increased funding and the appointment of more judges.
At Tuesday’s Knesset hearing, Labor MK Isaac Herzog accused Neeman of trying to pull off a “revolution” and of pulling out the legs from under Grunis.
The Bar also expressed firm opposition to the reform, suggesting instead temporary judicial appointments when the courts get overloaded.
Likud MK Yariv Levin was one of the few voices supporting the reform.
He questioned the idea of Grunis voicing any public position on the issue, asking why the Supreme Court president was getting involved and turning himself into “a party” to a debate that should be left to the Knesset.
One other voice in favor of some kind of reform enlarging the role of arbitration in Israel was an expert from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
The expert claimed that arbitration could level the playing field in litigation between individuals and large corporations and developers, which frequently arises.
But a number of other MKs said that Grunis’s opinion could not be ignored, and it was resolved that the Justice Ministry would need to address Grunis’s objection at a hearing next week.