Role of Czech “lay judges” may be limited to criminal cases under Justice Ministry proposal

Photo: succo, Pixabay / CC0

A number of key reforms of the Czech judicial system aimed at increasing transparency and accountability in the selection procedure for judges are under debate. Meanwhile, MPs have passed an amendment aimed at reducing the presence of so-called “lay judges” – seen as a holdover from Communism – during some court hearings.

In Czech courts, there are no juries. A judge (or a panel of judges) decides both the verdict and the sentence. But in criminal cases, two lay judges – appointed by municipal or regional councils – now sit alongside a professional judge in the first instance of a non-specialized trial.

Critics argue that the presence in court hearings of these “judges of the people”, who receive some instruction but are generally unfamiliar with the finer points of the law, unnecessarily slows criminal proceedings – and contributes to case backlogs.

In fact, the Ministry of Justice had considered submitting an amendment in January that would eliminate the use of lay judges altogether, spokesman Vladimír Řepka told Czech Radio, but revised it to exclude them from cases of economic and property crime.

“In the end, we at the Ministry came to the conclusion that the participation of this so-called lay element in judicial decision-making is still significantly rooted in European countries. Under the amendment, decision-making via court panels would be limited to the most serious crimes, including especially violent ones.”

Some see the “judges of the people” as a holdover from the communist ideal of the popularization of justice.

Photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio

After taking power in 1948, the communist regime of Czechoslovakia adopted an Act on the Popularization of the Judiciary under which even the composition of the Supreme Court was completed by appointing a required number of lay judges.

Jihlava regional court judge Martina Chlupáčková is among those who would welcome reducing their presence.

“In my view, it’s a step in the right direction. To a certain extent, I think that this is still some remnant of earlier regulation, when regular people were supposed to participate in court proceedings. But I know that some of my fellow judges praises their cooperation.”

Mixed tribunals, involving lay judges under the leadership of a professional judge, are relatively frequent in the European Union. Many argue that the lay element is a democratizing component and preferable to a jury system.

Among them is Lubomír Dohnal, who has himself been working as a lay judge since 2006.

“You have to think of it as the profession that it is. I hear things that are not pleasant, but I signed a confidentiality agreement and keep it to myself. I take it as a necessary profession. Every panel has a professional judge and two lay judges. I think we are full advisory members.”

Authors: Brian Kenety , Patrik Salát
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