June 17, 2008

What Primero Justicia wants, Part II: The justice system

Katy says: - This is the second post in a series on the proposals of Venezuela’s opposition political parties. The first part (on oil policy) is here.

The translated summary that follows is an exclusive excerpt of Primero Justicia's platform. These proposals were approved last October in the party’s Ideological Congress, but the final version has not yet been made public. The original version is available from me, via email.


The diagnosis.-

Venezuela’s Constitution says that everyone is the same in the eyes of the law. One of our inalienable rights is to have a justice system that works quickly and fairly. But to most Venezuelans these are just words on a piece of paper, nothing more.

People don’t trust the justice system, and there are many reasons why this is so.

First off, the justice system does not work well because it is poorly funded. Venezuela has fewer judges and prosecutors per capita than many other Latin American countries. Public funding for the justice system is lower than in neighboring countries in spite of record-high oil prices, and in spite of having been a major recipient of aid in recent years from multilateral organization, earmarked for improving our justice system.

It’s no surprise that people see the courts as inaccessible. The number of legal complaints filed in court as a percentage of the population is lower than in other, less violent Latin American countries. Trials tend to last forever – civil trials last on average 783 days; investigating a crime takes on average 286 days and sentencing takes a further 754 days. These figures are many times higher than the maximum length allowed by law.

The justice system is perceived as something to avoid instead of a tool to help make our lives better. Part of the reason is that most judges are susceptible to influence peddling and corruption. In 2005, 84% of our judges held temporary positions, as did 90% of the public prosecutors in the country. While these numbers have gone down in recent years, more than 50% of the remaining judges are still temporary. The few permanent positions being filled have not been open to contests, as mandated by law.

The lack of justice means that most crimes in our country go unsolved and unpunished. According to the Central University of Venezuela, only 7 out of every 100 murders in Venezuela end in sentencing. These numbers are even more out of whack when it comes to extra-judicial killings by the hands of the police or the military – only 1.4% of those servicemen accused of murder are ever convicted.

Not surprisingly, the only people who use the justice system are the rich, the powerful and the well connected. Every part of the judicial process comes with an illegal fee attached to it, which only exacerbates the exclusion of poor people from formal means of justice.


The proposals.-

Primero Justicia’s proposals for our justice system are, as the party's name would suggest, the first topic in their platform.

It's a mistake to think this ranking is merely a response to the party's name. The party sees the transformation of the justice system as the key element in the fight against poverty and exclusion, as the cornerstone of social and economic policy. They believe there can be no peace and no progress in our country unless we embark on a thorough transformation of our justice system.

Their main goal is to make the justice system accessible to people. One of the ways they plan on doing this is through the “Casas de la Justicia.”

The goal of these centers is to bring the knowledge and the tools of the justice system into communities around the country. The idea is for these centers to help spread information on formal and informal ways of solving conflict and provide free legal assistance.

These centers would also offer mediation services, as well as provide legal assistance on matters related to children and teenagers and judicial support to Justices of the Peace, among others. The party has already opened several dozens of these centers all across the country, and the experience so far has been positive.

Another way of making justice accessible is by widening the range of tools available to people for solving conflicts.

One way of doing this is by promoting university-sponsored legal clinics and making it mandatory for graduating attorneys to provide community legal services. The party also proposes legislation to include the possibility of mediation and conciliation in all legal processes, as well as expanding legislation and funding for Justices of the Peace. The goal is to ease the burden on the courts and make litigation cheaper by promoting alternative mechanisms for dispute resolution, decreasing in the process the incentives for corruption in our courts.

The party pledges to jumpstart the review and modification of current legislation in order to suppress useless formalisms. They propose expanding the use of oral procedures in different stages of the legal process, as well as the application of immediacy and concentration principles to facilitate the presentation of proof and speed the course of trials.

As far as the number of judges is concerned, the party promises to increase them by 2,000 in the first five years after being elected, with their accompanying administrative staff. They also propose expanding the number of prosecutors by 1,000, with a focus on fundamental rights and criminal law.

They pledge to increase the number of courts and redistribute their scope, as well as open double-blind contests so temporary judges can become permanent. They also pledge to find ways to incorporate civil society into the process of selecting judges.

One of the failures of our justice system is that there is no clear set of rules that anyone wishing to become a judge has to comply with. Likewise, the rules for promoting judges and other people working in the courts are not clear.

Primero Justicia wants to address this. They also propose increasing the number of criminal judges on call on nights, weekends and holidays.

As for the distribution of judicial causes, the party proposes auditing the cause assignment system. They will bring legislation forward to eliminate coordinating judges and substitute them for an office of judicial assignments that is on call, 24 hours a day.

Primero Justicia proposes the elimination of the Judicial Commission of the Supreme Tribunal. The party believes that in order to weed out good judges from bad ones, their academic and professional credentials must be made public. They propose redesigning the professional profile for judicial employees and bailiffs, and a quarterly evaluation mechanism for judges using an instrument especially designed for this.

Our courts need to become professional, accountable bodies. In order to achieve this, Primero Justicia wants to establish mandatory programs for professional improvement for those who work there. They also propose establishing efficient management models in all courts, along with social accountability programs to improve transparency. The proposals include a pledge to establish a national test as a requisite for getting a law degree

Primero Justicia is vague about the types of laws that will need to be modified. They emphasize that a new legal framework will be needed to make the law compatible with these and other policies they want to implement.

However, one of the concrete things they propose doing is reducing the number of crimes typified in the law, from 1,000 to 500. They explicitly mention the need to to update the Civil Code, the Commercial Code, the Criminal Code and the Organic Laws of the different bodies in the Moral Power.

The party proposes reviewing legislation contained in the Organic Criminal Procedures Code regarding the length of judicial proceedings, mandatory sentencing and measures intended to substitute jail time. They are explicit in saying that the goal of these changes will be to provide support for victims and their families, with harsher penalties and fewer loopholes.

With regards to the Prosecutor’s office, the party comes out in favor of purging politics out of this important institution.

One of the first things they mention is the need to make the caseload assignment independent of outside influences. They propose an objective, semi-random system for allocating cases to prosecutors. They also propose eliminating the power of the Prosecutor General to assign prosecutors to special cases, and creating special Prosecutor’s Offices for things such as organized crime, corruption and crimes against private property.

Primero Justicia proposes increasing the number of Prosecutor General’s offices and staffing them not only with lawyers but with psychologists, paramedics and social workers. They propose increasing the number of people on call tending to the public in 24-hour shifts. They include proposals for training staff on treating victims of crime and providing orientation. The party proposes incorporating a customer service hotline for the Prosecutor General’s office, in order to get first-hand anonymous accounts from the communities on how each office is doing its job.

Other measures include guaranteeing the autonomy of prosecutors and shielding them from specific instructions on how to act emanating from the Prosecutor General and others in the justice system. They also propose raising the salaries of prosecutors and implementing a system of rewards based on performance and background.

The party pledges to raise the allocation of funds for Prosecutor’s offices, define the desired profile for Prosecutors and opening public contests to fill vacant positions. Finally, they promise to invest in improving the physical infrastructure of Prosecutor’s offices.