New law to speed up criminal proceedings

Senator Michal Zantovsky, who believes law is contradictory but a step in the right direction

There have been frequent complaints in the Czech Republic in recent years over the speed, or lack of it, with which the courts deal with criminal cases. There is an immense backlog of cases, and the EU and leading judges have called for widespread judicial reform. But the Czech Senate passed an amendment to the criminal code on Friday that will speed up trials for petty crime, a move that has been described as progressive and even revolutionary. Nick Carey has this report.

Senator Michal Zantovsky
The amendment was passed almost unanimously by the Czech Senate on Friday, with just two abstentions. If President Havel signs the law, which is widely expected, then as of January 1st 2002, those arrested for petty crimes, such as pick-pockets, will be brought before a judge within hours of committing their crime, as opposed to months of waiting under the current system. The amendment also allows for those convicted to pay compensation to their victims, rather than receiving a prison sentence, which has been welcomed by some critics of the country's overcrowded prison system. Senator Michal Zantovsky of the opposition centre-right Civic Democratic Alliance was one of the two senators who abstained on Friday, as he feels that despite the amendment's benefits, there is one clause that contravenes the Czech Republic's Bill of Rights:

"The new code stipulates that in pre-trial detainment the accused can continue to be detained by order not just of the court, but also the state attorney. The Bill of Rights in our constitution says that this order can only be imposed by the court, so I felt that these two clauses contradicted each other."

Despite his abstention, Senator Zantovsky believes that the new criminal code will greatly benefit the Czech judicial system, even with this contradictory passage:

"It speeds up the legal process, especially with respect to petty crime and minor offences. It enables the court to proceed very quickly and this see that justice is done as soon as possible. It modernises the trial process itself, in that more of the evidence is presented and proved directly in court, rather than in the pre-trial process."

After the vote on Friday, Justice Minister Jaroslav Bures told the Senate that this is the biggest change to the Czech criminal code that the country has seen in more than two hundred years, since the days of the Habsburg Empire. Senator Zantovsky feels that although this is somewhat of an exaggeration, it is definitely a step forward:

"It's a major step ahead, I agree with that. But of course, he's the author and the presenter of the bill, so he has to more enthusiastic about it than we in the opposition. I think that in all fairness I would say that it's not a whole step, it's a half step, but it's a step in the right direction."