Egils Levits
Valsts prezidenta Egila Levita runa Tieslietu padomes 10 gadu jubilejas pasākumā

Esteemed Chair of the Judicial Council,

Dear Justice Minister,

Honourable members of the Judicial Council,

Justices, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

I am deeply delighted to join you today for the celebration of Council’s anniversary. I still clearly remember the day 10 years ago when the Council was finally established after long discussions. And it took at least 10 years of discussions to agree on establishing of the council. So, we can say that the idea of creating a Judicial Council was born 20 years ago. Therefore, I would like to start by saying a big thank you to the Council, its former chair Mr Bičkovičs, new leader Mr Strupišs, all the members and, of course, everyone who has facilitated the work of the Council throughout the years: Ministry of Justice, Court Administration, associations of judges and, of course, the Secretariat of the Judicial Council.

Dear colleagues,

I think that today is a very appropriate day to talk about strengthening of the future role of the Judicial Council at the national and judicial system level. We should also be thinking how to enhance the capacity embedded in the Council upon founding. I believe Judicial Council should play a more prominent role in raising the challenges that can be solved only by judicial branch of the government. Council must thus become an instrument of trust, public forum of trust for the judicial branch and adjudication, it must become the interface between the people and courts.

Looking at the decisions and the agenda of the Judicial Council, there are three distinct pillars of Judicial Council’s remit or core areas on which it has focused. First, financial responsibilities, such as, for example, to approve the judicial branch budget, which is a very important task. Council is also responsible for overseeing the organising of annual judicial conference and other financial matters. Second, human resource policy for judicial sector. This is another crucial area because human resource policy is instrumental to the judicial branch. Staffing of the courts is an important part of justice policy and Judicial Council is the format where corresponding decisions are made. And the third pillar is to assess the efficiency of judiciary and justice system, which comprises other elements in addition to courts. Council assesses the capacity of the judiciary and justice system, makes recommendations and contributes to the further development of judiciary and efficiency of courts.

All three pillars require precisely calibrated standards on the independence of courts and judges, which are not the same. The right balance between independence and external accountability. All state institutions, all state officials working for the government need it. This applies to all public officials, including judges, and all state institutions, including courts. One of the key principles of democracy and rule of law is: you get equal shares of power and accountability. There should not be more power than accountability or more accountability than power. All institutions must be calibrated this way, including, of course, the judiciary. And Judicial Council must precisely assess all factors. It is absolutely crucial. And, if necessary, it can also make the necessary adjustments.

Globally, the right balance or rather the right match between power and accountability is achieved through different judicial council models. Some countries choose to have more representatives of judiciary on the council, while others go for increased number of representatives from institutions the hold democratically legitimate powers. In any way, this is a model that keeps changing, so there will always be need to recalibrate it. I believe that we have found the right overall composition of the Judicial Council. Of course, it may need some tweaking to achieve better balance between power and accountability. It is, of course, important to ensure that majority of members represent the judiciary. But it is equally important to have strong representation of other sectors of the justice system. Lawyers, prosecutors. This is not a court council. This is judicial council. Judicial Council must represent all institutions comprising the judiciary system and also democratic institutions. It is not a self-regulatory body of the judiciary. Judiciary works for the people. That is why Judicial Council must have representatives with democratic legitimacy. The strength of the council is in its inter-disciplinary composition. This strength must be utilized more to allow the Judicial Council to use its full potential and play a prominent role at the national level as it was initially meant to do.

For instance, its focus should extend beyond courts and judiciary. Collaboration between lawyers, prosecutors and courts should also be one of the issues on the agenda of Judicial Council. For example, it could issue guidelines on how lawyers and courts should interact to ensure the maximum efficiency of courts. This relationship should be formalised in a consolidated document, for example, handbook. There are many other issues that council should address to make courts even more efficient, professional and competent. Issues that can be solved through cooperation between several actors in the justice system. Primarily judges, but also lawyers and prosecutors. These are just some of the examples. So, let me reiterate, interdisciplinary dialogue is key for efficiency of judicial system. And it is mainly up to citizen and democratically legitimate institutions to assess whether they are efficient or not. It is mainly up to citizen to evaluate and recommend some improvements. Judicial Council is the best platform for that.

Judicial Council, of course, also acts as the trade union. But that is not the main responsibility of the Judicial Council; there are other bodies for that. I think Judicial Council has the mission to find deficiencies and correct them. Judicial Council has had several successful initiatives in the past. Let us, for example, take review of insolvency cases and review about efficiency of justice. Both reviews needed to be pushed and there was a lot of resistance. That is not how it should be. Judicial Council should be the first to identify these challenges and put them at the top of the agenda. I do believe that Judicial Council should pay greater attention to efficiency through something, which is known in the business world as quality management system. All efficient and well-run countries have strong quality assurance. And I think it is the responsibility of the Judicial Council to manage the quality of judicial system.

Let me also briefly talk about the general situation in justice system. Justice system, of course, represents one of the three branches of government. All three branches together form the state. State must generally provide citizens an ideal service. That is crucial. And there should be control mechanisms allowing to identify deficiencies at the executive, legislative and judicial level. There is no room for complacency. We should not think that everything is fine and we do not need no quality assurance. That is not how well-run systems operate.

As I have underlined on several occasions, on the whole there are several policies without strong political ownership as far as our state government system is concerned. Let me mention some of these policy areas: digital transformation, families, children and demographics, public administration and civil service, disability and many other. Nobody is fully responsible for them. That is the weakness of our public administration. That is because we see ourselves as a small country with only 1.9 million population that does not need a sophisticated and complex public administration. Dear colleagues, that is wrong. The size of population does not matter when it comes to complexity of the modern world. We are faced with same challenges as US or France. If we take their institutional frameworks, we can see that they are much more intricate. And it is important for us as a society to come to terms with the fact that we need adequate institutional, national government system. That is why I proposed the Cabinet of Ministers to create a council. But now this council is dormant after it has been created. I am talking about the Crime Prevention Council. That is the body, which will have to look into these issues. How come everyone, including civil servants, legislature and courts, is working (and doing a good job) and nothing comes out of it? That is why we need a body that will try to figure out why nothing happens. I believe that Crime Prevention Council is the most suitable body for that. I am grateful to the Chair of the Judicial Council for agreeing to join the council and work together with other members to figure out how judiciary can help solve this problem. I am not saying that these are deficiencies of judicial system. These are rather public administration ‘grey areas’.

There is another instrumental platform initiated by me. Meetings of leaders of constitutional bodies. On 23 March 2020, it convened its first meeting since adoption of Satversme. Judiciary was represented by Mr Bičkovičs and Madam Ziemele. According to our constitution, we have five constitutional bodies that are collectively responsible for efficient work of all public officials and adherence to constitutional principles. I think this is an efficient vehicle of cooperation and I am especially glad about the constructive contribution of Mr Strupišs. We have had several conversations. Mr Strupišs has some really good ideas.

I would like to conclude my speech by mentioning specific issues pertaining to judges. It is necessary to strengthen the self-governing body of judges. Currently this role is performed by annual conference of judges and its institutions. But I believe we need a permanent body that would work throughout the year, an institution. Maybe it can be, for example, the Secretariat of the Judicial Council. But it is, of course, up to Mr Strupišs to decide. All issues that Judicial Council is dealing with do not have to be resolved during this cycle. There are some issues, very delicate issues related to judiciary that simply cannot be completely resolved.

As regards to judiciary, or more specifically judges, there is something that I want to remind you. Something I said at this year’s opening sitting of the Constitutional Court. I urged to pay particular attention to how cases are adjudicated. Not only how verdicts are made but also how various parties interpret the application of law, application of legal acts. I mentioned four enemies of the rule of law, which we should defeat by improving the skills and competencies of judges working in courts. There is legal nihilism or complete ignorance of legal norms. Secondly, there is formalism, which is, in fact, important for enforcement of law at the civil service and judicial level. Many countries have it. Then there is the circumventing of law, i.e. when the issue is not regulated just by one law but depends on principles set down in several legal acts. Those who enforce laws are not always aware of these loopholes, but those who are looking for loopholes to bypass laws by sneaking through these legal shadows know exactly where they are. And, last but not least, the abuse of law.

I think Judicial Training Centre should definitely look into this problem. While we are on the topic of Judicial Training Centre, I wanted to underline that it is doing a really good job right now. Mr Strupišs and I both think the centre needs to be institutionalised and become the academy for judges and prosecutors. It should offer regular pre-selected workshops, upskilling courses for judges and public prosecutors, and maybe also other professionals. I think that this is possible. I assume Justice Minister would also be ready to support this idea.

In conclusion, I am absolutely convinced that Judicial Council is an excellent platform. It has made significant progress in last 10 years and here are its main two tasks for the next 10 years. First of all, it must create an instrument for regular monitoring, detection and elimination of system deficits. And secondly, it must constantly be aware that judiciary is one of three branches of government. All three government branches must work like a clockwork. If you remove the case, you will uncover the wheel train. These wheels have teeth and there is no sand. I get the feeling that our wheels have sand in them. We must clean the sand by blowing to get the wheels unblocked and get rid of the grinding noise. But people do not care about what is wrong. They expect it to work. They expect the justice watch to show the time: right or wrong. All three wheels - Judicial Council, Cabinet of Minister and legislature - need to be locked into each other and turn smoothly, delivering what the citizen expect.

And finally, a big, big thank you to all the colleagues who have been involved in the operation of the Judicial Council in their various capacities. Good luck to those colleagues who are currently running the Judicial Council.

Thank you very much!

28.09.2020. Valsts prezidents Egils Levits piedalās Tieslietu padomes 10 gadu jubilejas pasākumā