Δευτέρα, 22 Φεβρουαρίου 2016

The Economist: Greek courts take three times as long as Irish courts to enforce contracts

The wheels of justice grind slow Especially in southern Europe. This is not exceedingly fine

ALBERTO MUNNO, a judge in the southern Italian city of Taranto, believes he is being oppressed by his country’s justice system. He has a rather good case. “I produce 160 verdicts per year—and the European Convention on Human Rights bans slavery,” he complains. With a backlog of over 500 cases, the overworked judge recently postponed a civil hearing by three years. The owner of the firm involved, who filed a claim for €200,000 ($220,000) in 2014, will now have to wait until 2019 to have his case heard. It takes on average 1,210 days for Italy’s judges to resolve a typical commercial dispute.

A Greek "success"

Though notorious for their lethargy, Italy’s courts are not Europe’s worst offenders. Slovenia’s take even longer. Cyprus’s can take over three years, more than thrice the wait in Germany and France. Italy’s government has at least accepted that it has a problem. Matteo Renzi, the country’s energetic prime minister, has made judicial reform a priority.

The European Commission is anxious to speed up Europe’s courts. During the depths of the euro crisis, it introduced rules intended to harmonise the euro area’s economies. Those included a chapter on justice. Greece’s creditors even made changing the country’s court procedures a precondition of its most recent bail-out. Dealing with cases quickly is, of course, not the only measure of a good legal system. (If it were, Russia’s courts would outperform England’s; and Islamic State’s death-penalty jurisprudence would be a model for the world.) Nonetheless, the commission is right to worry. Long delays make it harder to do business; Italy estimates that legal sloth shrinks its GDP by 1%. Delays also damage the single market.

Litigation in Europe often crosses borders. In the absence of a system of federal European courts, the judges from one member state must take the lead. The thicket of rules that decide which state will take a particular case are known as the Brussels regulation. For many years, this system held that the first court to receive a lawsuit should decide whether to hear it. That gave rise to a range of manoeuvres devised by clever lawyers. One, the so-called “Italian torpedo”, involves a plaintiff filing a claim in Italy in a bid to delay proceedings. (A manufacturer might file a frivolous patent infringement claim to fend off a real one.) Even deciding to pass the case to another country could take several years. The regulations were reformed last year, and courts are now supposed to respect contracts that specify which country has jurisdiction. But where the choice is ambiguous, the torpedo may still be armed.

Several things slow down European civil justice, says Giuliana Palumbo, a researcher at Italy’s national bank and the author of a paper on the subject. First, procedure matters. Slow jurisdictions, like Italy, let lawyers adduce new evidence whenever they want, allowing them to prolong a case with new submissions. Quicker ones, like France, give judges the power to impose strict deadlines. Second, how judges get promoted is important. Some countries ignore judges’ managerial prowess when deciding whom to promote. That gives ambitious younger judges no incentive to clear their dockets. A third factor is how lawyers are paid. Some countries limit the hourly fee they can charge for a given service. That can make stretching out a case the only way to earn more. Most jurisdictions have some of these problems. Italy has all three, Ms Palumbo sighs.

Some remedies are both obvious and cheap. Binning the fax machines and shifting to the internet can speed up cases. Estonia lets plaintiffs file a claim, submit evidence and even appeal a court decision online. Judges and clerks should also think like managers, Ms Palumbo says. Promoting judges based on their case-management skills, and getting them involved in budgeting, can help to focus their minds.

Lawyers are also to blame, though. One problem is that southern Europe simply has too many of them. Greece and Italy have almost 400 lawyers per 100,000 residents. (That is about the same outlandish ratio that prevails in notoriously litigious America.) France makes do with only 85. Jean-Paul Jean, a French judge who chairs the Council of Europe’s justice committee, notes that there is a “strange overlap” between the countries where trials take a long time and those with lots of lawyers. (Luxembourg is a notable exception.) Numerous, eloquent and organised, they form a powerful lobby in most southern European countries.

That makes reform difficult. Greek lawyers showed their political muscle last month, going on strike to protest against cuts to their pensions. Since Greek courts already take more than four years to enforce a contract, the striking lawyers’ clients may not notice the difference.

The Economist


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