Chilly stand-off at Congress

news: Chilly stand-off at Congress

A NEW report, coinciding with the seventh Congress of Judges which was held recently in Praia do Carvoeiro (near Lagoa), has uncovered inefficiencies among judges at a time when relations between the judiciary and the government have reached an all time low.

The report from the Permanent Observatory of Portuguese Justice pinpointed alarming shortfalls, especially in Lisbon and Porto. In the country’s two biggest cities, the number of current and pending court cases was found to be substantially higher than the number of completed processes. The survey also revealed wide disparities in judges’ performances, concluding that some are five times more efficient than others. It also found that, although the average length of the working week was 50 hours, some judges worked only 20 hours a week while others put in 75 hours. The findings come after a long period of friction between the government and the judiciary, marked by allegations of discourtesy between the two sides. Prime Minister José Sócrates recently called for the judiciary to respect the government’s measures, saying “who governs is the government”.

The Prime Minister’s plea followed a damning eve of conference appeal from the president of the Supreme Court of Justice, Nunes da Cruz, who said that the administration wanted to convey an unrealistically unflattering image of judges. “The executive has said that courts close for three months every year, which is not true. The executive also says that judges believe themselves to be superior to everyone and everything, which is also untrue. This current turbulence (in relations) cannot be maintained,” he added.

Tension between judges and government since election

Hostilities between government and the judiciary broke out soon after the Socialist government came to power. In one of his first pronouncements, Sócrates spoke of reducing judicial holidays, freezing upward career progression and raising the retirement age. Then his government announced its intention to reduce the number of beneficiaries of social services for the Justice Ministry.

Judicial unions, interpreting this as a new line of attack, unleashed a week of strikes. Judges accused the government of failing to treat them with due deference and Sócratesretorted that he expected all sections of society to make sacrifices during difficult economic times.

President Sampaio also attended the judges’ conference in Carvoeiro, saying that he understood the “hurt” of judges in their dispute with the executive. During the congress, the government was sharply criticised by the presidents of the Supreme Constitutional and Administrative Courts, Santos Serra and Artur Maurício. Serra warned that the judiciary may represent “an easy target” for the government but that sustained attacks could easily backfire on the government.

Justice Minister Alberto Costa, addressing the congress, pleaded for an end to hostilities, saying that the current state of the justice system did not “permit us the luxury of burying ourselves in useless misunderstandings”. He assured the audience of his respect but urged judges and lawyers to familiarise themselves with new procedural and technological tools, at their disposal next year, in order to boost performance.

Although Costa received a cool reception, Serra praised his speech as an act of appeasement. Nunes da Cruz also said that Costa’s words constituted a positive sign and evidence of the goodwill that magistrates had hoped to see.