RIGA - Twenty years after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, the Baltic nations of Latvia and Lithuania still struggle to operate a functioning justice system despite their enthusiastic embrace of the West and entry into the European Union, reports Associated Press.
Disputes drag on for years, cronyism is rife, judges are inundated with cases and verdicts are often ignored. Throughout the former Soviet Union - which collapsed 20 years ago this December - the idea of a rule of law has failed miserably, with Russia and other countries maintaining a “pocket judiciary” that caters to the powerful and wealthy.
But the Western-leaning Baltics, members of NATO and the EU since 2004, might be expected to be an exception. “The problem in the Baltic States is that you do not have the law used in that perverse sense (as in Russia), but you have all the real post-Soviet problems of judicial independence,” said Andrew Wilson, an analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations. The Associated Press mentions various court processes that have been repeatedly postponed, dragging on for several years. People in the Baltics look poorly on the judiciary. In Latvia, only 36 percent of the population trust their courts, according to a Eurobarometer survey in November 2010, while only 22 percent of Lithuanians trust their judiciary.
The wait for a hearing in Latvia’s Supreme Court is now two years, while in the Riga Regional Court the average judge took on about 280 new civil cases in the first half of 2011, and 400 cases for all of 2010. In Lithuania, the average district court judge took on 488 new civil and criminal cases in 2009, and 421 in 2010. Sandra Strence, chairman of the Riga Regional Court, said the Baltics suffer from a “distorted understanding of human rights” that grants the individual every possible leniency - allowing people to skip hearings due to a sore finger and appeal every loss all the way to the Supreme Court. In the West, higher court costs and lawyer fees prohibit many losers from appealing, while defendants and lawyers who are constant no-shows would be slapped with contempt of court and heavy fines.
Some critics say that Latvian and Lithuanian judges, many of whom remain from the Soviet period, are the core problem since they prefer a convoluted system that can be manipulated for their own benefit - such as charging “fees” for moving court dates. In Estonia, the leadership realized early on after independence that Soviet-era judges would be a hindrance to establishing a rule of law and fired most of them - one of the reasons why Estonia has moved ahead of its Baltic cousins in justice, points out the news agency