Wheels of justice

Above all, it must be acknowledged that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch 311 (photo credit: Dudi Vaknin / Pool)
Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch 311
(photo credit: Dudi Vaknin / Pool)
It has long been a given in this country that “the wheels of justice grind slowly,” yet, contrary to the old adage, they don’t necessarily “grind exceedingly fine.” Both the state comptroller and the judiciary’s ombudsman have heaped much scorn on this state of affairs, but that hasn’t speeded things up in court. What was is what is – only more so and even slower.
A particularly sad illustration of judicial foot-dragging was added this week. The husband of a deceased plaintiff has sued the state for compensation because of a case that dragged on for over 15 years, during which his wife died. The couple initially sought judicial remedy for construction flaws by their contractor. That was back in 1989.
The mundane eight-page ruling wasn’t completed until 2005. By that time the contractor claimed he could not redress the damages, in accordance with the delayed verdict, owing to financial difficulties.
In a strikingly similar case last year, NIS 210,000 was disbursed from public coffers to attorney Adiel Cheshin, brother of retired Supreme Court justice Mishael Cheshin. In 1991 Adiel Cheshin sued an ex-client for unpaid legal fees. The final decision was only written in 2004, by which time the ex-client had declared bankruptcy and couldn’t pay. Hence Cheshin sued the state.
The judiciary’s ombudsman, retired justice Eliezer Goldberg, warned in 2010 that “in the end the public will be financially liable for this dreadful disease of judicial delay.”
In both aforementioned cases the sluggish judge was Jerusalem District judge (now retired) Michaela Shidlowsky Or, wife of retired Supreme Court justice Theodore Or. She had long starred in judicial foot-dragging complaints. Back in 2006, then-ombudswoman former Supreme Court justice Tova Strasberg Cohen dealt with Shidlowsky Or’s backlog as well as that of Labor Court deputy president Elisheva Barak-Ussoskin, wife of Supreme Court president Aharon Barak.
Strasberg Cohen’s report was uncommonly exhaustive. It covered hundreds of complaints about proceedings dragged out for years, certainly beyond what can be tolerated as even marginally reasonable.
Strasberg Cohen ascribed the excruciatingly prolonged proceedings – following a thorough inspection of this aspect of the courts’ dysfunction – 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 each day, each judge postpones seven court sessions. Many thousands of sessions are routinely deferred in Israel’s courts, with the exception of the Supreme Court. Moreover, files are occasionally shuffled from judge to judge, causing further postponements.
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 parties, this is unsuitable for many plaintiffs. 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 unreasonably protracted periods.
Our judges, however, can hardly be trusted to remember anything about witnesses. Each judge must deal with some 1,000 cases (in no small part owing to inexcusable procrastination) and ends up juggling them.
Yet this anomaly isn’t preordained or immutable. Perhaps the time has come to copy the US system, where trials are conducted continuously – full day after full day. This isn’t unfeasible here. We can take leave of inefficient, though familiar, legal habits and overhaul the system – even if vested interests are sure to be sacrificed along the way.
Our civic hygiene will not be purified and respect for the rule of law will not be upheld until our courts are forced to respect others’ time and abide by timetables just as ordinary taxpayers must.
Above all, it must be acknowledged that “justice delayed is justice denied.” It’s worth paying heed to the late US chief justice, Warren Burger, who argued that “inefficiency and delay will drain even a just judgment of its value.”