Monday 21 June 2021

Costa Rica’s Supreme Court Readying Bill For Single-Judge Trials

The proposal is to eliminate the three-judge and substitute panel for one-judge trials except for 'complex' trials such drug trafficking, violence against women and child pornography

In order to make judicial processes more agile and optimize the use of human resources and existing facilities, the Supreme Court of Justice (Corte Suprema de Justicia) is preparing a bill that allows a single judge trials that currently require the presence of three.

The proposal is to eliminate the three-judge and substitute panel for one-judge trials except for ‘complex’ trials such drug trafficking, violence against women and child pornography, for example.

In reality, four judges are assigned to a trial – three primary and a substitute.

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Trials for the more crimes, for example, organized crime, drug trafficking, violence against women and pornography against minors would be excepted, that is to continue to require the three-judge panel.

Recently, the Court applied administrative measures to encourage one-judge trials, but can only do so when the offense is punishable by a penalty of less than five years in prison.

In order to expand the powers required, the Ley Orgánica del Poder Judicial, must be reformed, hence the proposal being worked on by the president of the Court, Carlos Chinchilla.

Chinchilla estimates that if the proposed change is approved by the Legislative Assembly, criminal matters can be resolved within 12 to 18 months and the Court will not many judges available. The magistrate assured that all the guarantees and rights of the parties involved in the process will be maintained.

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Two reports from the Programa Estado de la Nación (State of the Nation Program) in 2014 and 2017 show the dissatisfaction of the slowness of the judicial processes in the country.

The three judge requirements also saw a dramatic increase in human resource, the Judicial Branch going from 3,621 officials in 1990 to 11,892 in 2015 when 20% of the staff are judges.

The “intermediate phase” of trials adds 2 to 3 years to the trial process, argue those internal and external to the process.

Eliminating the intermediate stage of criminal proceedings is another of the approaches that would be included in the draft law under development, as it is considered to be one of the major causes of slowdowns in the judicial process.

For many, the preliminary hearing is the major cause of the delays in trials. “I would say that the intermediate stage has to be eliminated. Nothing happens (…),” said Chinchilla, adding that the intermediate phase adds up to three years in the process.

The magistrate points to the case of the “trocha fronteriza” (border trial) – a case now six years in the judicial process – that is far from reaching a trial, since it has not even gone through the preliminary hearing (intermediate phase), and which appears it will not happen this year due to the difficulty to get the 52 people involved in the case (between accused, defenders, prosecutors, and judges).

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The elimination of the intermediate phase seems to have support outside the Judicial Branch as well.

Prominent criminal lawyer Rafael Gairaud told La Nacion that effectively eliminating the intermediate phase, would mean many more judges could be devoted to the trial and it would also free prosecutors.

Supporting the proposed change is also the president of the Bar Association (Colegio de Abogados), Juan Luis León, who estimates eliminating the intermediate phase would reduce the process by two years.

Ronald Segura, president of the Prosecutors Association (Asociación Costarricense de Fiscales) is clear that the intermediate phase must be eliminated, an idea that has been bouncing around for the last 13 years.

According to Segura, preliminary hearings should be considered only in complex cases, and for the rest it is a “bottleneck” that prevents more expeditious trials.

Source (in Spanish): La Nacion

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