THE JULGADOS de Paz are small claims courts, which were recently created for use by the general public to resolve conflicts through negotiation. The idea is to set up proceedings that are simple, informal, oral and adequate for the interests at stake, and accessible to a vast majority of the population.
This form of resolving private disputes was introduced by a law in 2001, which gives the Julgados de Paz jurisdiction to decide on matters where the value does not exceed 3.740,98 euros, relating to property, contract law or tort law. They may also hear cases for damage compensation relating to crimes that have not been pursued in the criminal courts.
The innovative aspect of the proceedings is that before intervention by the judge in the proceedings, there is a conciliatory stage where a conflict mediator assumes a major role. The mediator is a qualified professional who acts as a communicator between the parties, helping them to reconcile their differences and to try and reach a settlement.
How the process works
The proceedings are initiated by the claimant lodging a claim, which can be oral or written. If the defendant is not present at this moment, he/she has to be summoned, after which he/she has 10 days to present a defence. If no defence is presented, the claimant is awarded a judgement by default.
The mediation process then begins and the parties are given an explanation as to what the mediation consists of. They will also be sounded out to verify their willingness to reach an agreement through mediation.
If the parties reach an agreement, it will be signed by them and then ratified by the judge. The procedure will have the same value as a judicial order.
If the parties are not able to reach an agreement at this stage, or one of the parties fails to appear at the mediation hearings twice, the judge will set the date for a hearing to take place.
If the claimant fails to appear twice at the hearing, the case will be thrown out of court. If the defendant fails to appear twice at the hearing, a judgement by default will be issued as there is deemed to be a full confession of the facts.
After the hearing, the judge will issue an order that can be appealed to the relevant magistrates court, but only when the value in dispute is greater than 1.870,49 euros.
Each party has to appear before the judge personally and can choose whether or not to be accompanied by a lawyer. Another innovation is that the hearing’s date, time and location, as well as the length, will be agreed upon between all parties concerned.
One of the advantages of these proceedings is that the judicial recess (which up until now has been from July 16 to September 14) is not applicable and hearings are, therefore, held during this period. Also, these proceedings tend to last no longer than three months, which is a significant improvement in relation to normal judicial proceedings.
The court costs are also far lower than those of standard court proceedings (between 50 and 70 euros).
From the above, it is clear that the proceedings brought before these Julgados de Paz are far less time consuming, the parties have more control of the proceedings, there is a great emphasis on achieving resolution through settlement, and it allows for equitable and innovative solutions for each different dispute, not usually available in the normal law courts.
With a judicial system constantly criticised for being sluggish and stretched to full capacity, the Julgados de Paz seem to be a step in the right direction in trying to provide a swift, economical and just resolution to the day-to-day problems which affect the average citizen in Portugal, giving them a forum to resolve their conflicts and, thereby, freeing up the courts to deal with the more complex issues.