New Czech justice minister wants a three-tier court system

Marie Benešová, photo: ČTK/Kateřina Šulová

On her first day in office as the new Czech justice minister, Marie Benešová, unveiled her plans for reforming the Czech judiciary. In an interview for the daily Lidové noviny, Benešová said she would like to introduce a three-tier court system, which would make the country’s two high courts and their state attorneys redundant.

Marie Benešová,  photo: ČTK/Kateřina Šulová
Minister Benešová, who took office amidst a storm of protests, for fear that she would try to undermine the independence of the judiciary in connection with a criminal investigation involving the prime minister has vehemently denied having plans to sack the country’s chief state attorney, Pavel Zeman, or unleash a cleansing of officials linked to the sensitive case.

However she did say that as a former justice minister and chief former state attorney she was well acquainted with the workings of the Czech judiciary and considered a four-tier system of courts and state attorneys excessive for a country the size of the Czech Republic. She said she would be in favour of introducing a three-tier system based on the country’s 86 district courts, 8 regional courts and 2 supreme courts, as well as the Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic.

This would mean that the country’s two high courts which handle appeals to regional court verdicts –one in Prague with jurisdiction over Bohemia, the other in Olomouc with jurisdiction over Moravia and Silesia – would be scrapped. Their chief state attorneys, Lenka Bradáčová and Ivo Ištván, who have both won considerable respect in office, would find high posts elsewhere in the system for instance at the chief state attorney’s office in Brno which would gain greater powers, Benešová argued.

She stressed that while she was convinced this would be a change for the better, she would await the results of an expert analysis and be guided by the views of legal experts before trying to push through the proposed changes.

The first reactions from those it would affect have been extremely cautious. The President of the Union of State Attorneys Jan Lata says the proposed change is so complicated it would mean changing the constitution. The President of the Union of Judges Daniela Zemanová says the union is worried about far-reaching changes implemented in haste.

Daniela Zemanová,  photo: Czech Television
“I greatly appreciate the minister’s intention to wait for the results of an expert analysis. If such a radical change is introduced it should be thoroughly debated, well-justified and well-prepared –which is not something you see in the judiciary.”

The new justice minister also said she would like to restrict the mandate of chief state attorneys who are now appointed indefinitely. Although several of her predecessors in office, including Jan Knežínek, planned a similar change, the arrival of Marie Benešová on the scene has made the suggestion highly sensitive, with Social Democrat leader Jan Hamáček saying his party would not support such a change and that he himself can see no reason for interfering with the way the system works.

Benešová, who says the proposed changes are the result of previous experience as both chief state attorney and justice minister, maintains they have nothing to do with the prime minister’s case. Either way, she said that even if they were approved, for time reasons they would likely be introduced by her successor in office.