47 courts reopen as government strives to bring Justice closer to the people

Two years after the last government’s catastrophic ‘redrawing of the judicial map’, 47 courts that were closed down and put in mothballs are to reopen. The plan – to bring Justice once again closer to the people – will “cost just €500,000 and benefit 1.1 million” who before had to travel over half-an-hour to their nearest court building. But will it work in a country where Justice is notorious for moving at the pace of a snail? Initial reactions suggest a hung jury.

Fernando Jorge, president of the syndicate of court workers, says that Justice minister Francisca Van Dunem’s contention that “in some cases courts will have to function with just one member of staff” makes no sense at all.

“What will happen when this court official has to accompany a judgement, or an interrogation? Will he or she have to put a piece of paper up on the door saying ‘Back soon’? It is unthinkable that a notice like that could be fixed on the door of a court”, he told reporters.

The effective reopening of 47 courts shut down in the name of austerity is without doubt a “positive measure”, Jorge concluded. But it does not resolve the key issue, which is lack of staff.

“There have to be a minimum of two or three officials in each court,” he said.

Unveiling her plan on Tuesday, Francisca Van Dunem agreed that Portugal needs 1,200 more court staff and that measures are underway to try and sort this lacuna by “reinforcing” the service with workers from the finance ministry.

But she stressed that courts with only one official in charge will be those that deal with “less than 250 cases a year” and will be expecting administrative ‘back up’ to be provided by the local council.

The minister is confident that her plan is enough, say reports – so now it is just a question of lighting the touch paper and hoping it all works.

All change from January 2017

Twenty of the courts closed over the summer of 2014 – against a backdrop of opposition from all sectors – will start reopening from January 2017, while 27 that were reduced to “sections of proximity” will now be reactivated so that judicial proceedings can take place.

These 27 facilities will be used to hear Family Court issues and minor cases – where penalties would not exceed five years in prison – explains Diário de Notícias.

Meantime, the 20 reopened court buildings in the country’s interior (including Monchique: see box story), will have the “competence of current sections of proximity and realise judicial acts like trials and the questioning of witnesses”.

This latter area is one that suffered markedly as a result of former Justice Minister Paula Teixeira da Cruz’s ‘redrawing of the judicial map’ in 2014.

Fernando Queiroga, mayor of Boticas – which is one of the many towns to see its court reopen – explained that “no-one wanted to be a witness” in trials post-2014, as to be one implied all kinds of expenses as well as distances to travel. Botica’s court closure “prejudiced the very functioning of justice”, he explained.

Government study shows 2.6 million “more than half-an-hour’s travel from Family Courts”

Keen to promote the rights of children, Francisca Van Dunem’s concerns were powered by a government study that showed 2.6 million people (over 523,000 of them under the age of 19) have been left over half-an-hour from any building equipped to deal with Family Court issues.

With the new plans, which effectively create 30 more family and minors courts, the number of people left over half-an-hour’s travel from a facility has been reduced to 1.7 million.

In all, 1.1 million nationals will be ‘closer to Justice’, affirms Van Dunem, for an investment of only €500,000.

And there’s potentially more ‘good news’ on the money-front: a way of releasing the government from a staggering €1 million per month rent on the flagship court building in Lisbon famous for the country’s most high-profile cases.

According to DN, no one even knows who owns Campus da Justiça – despite its whopping rental agreement that goes back to the government of José Sócrates.

The realm of ‘superjudge’ Carlos Alexandre – the man currently juggling multiple cases of alleged institutional corruption, including one centering on Sócrates’ himself – the rent has been “a controversial issue since 2009”, says the paper.

Van Dunem told MPs on Tuesday that her ministry was “not excluding” the possibility that a “more financially-friendly” solution for the courts could be found.

Not a word about CITIUS

This time, not a word has been mentioned about CITIUS, the Justice Ministry’s portal, named after the Latin for speed, which crashed during the 2014 changes, sending over 3.5 million cases into virtual limbo for weeks.

A year later (last August, 2015), the association of public ministry magistrates declared that Portugal’s legal system was “far worse” than it had been for years “as all the old problems persist, with new ones alongside”.

It just remains to be seen whether Francisca Van Dunem’s new plan can turn things around.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]