What the Irish legal system can learn from Ukraine’s judiciary

A visit to a district court here by a delegation of judges from the Eastern European country shows the advantages and disadvantages of both structures, writes Noel Baker.

What the Irish legal system can learn from Ukraine’s judiciary

A visit to a district court here by a delegation of judges from the Eastern European country shows the advantages and disadvantages of both structures, writes Noel Baker.

For a moment, the Irish legal eagles gathered in Clonakilty District Court must have wondered whether their visiting Ukrainian counterparts had dropped a zero from their calculations.

The three-strong judicial delegation of Tetiana Shevryina, Ihor Stednyk, and Iuliia Saldan had visited the sitting of the district court in West Cork as part of the European Union Advisory Mission (EUAM) Ukraine, led by deputy head of operations Lynn Sheehan.

With court open, but cleared of cases, Judge Marie Keane, the local solicitors, and the visitors compared the two jurisdictions, including typical caseload. While Judge Keane mused that a rural judge in Ireland could expect to hear around 10,000 cases a year, and more than that in the cities, the Ukrainian delegation said the equivalent in their country was a mere 800. Jaws duly slackened.

Solicitor Tony Greenway said that, from an Irish perspective, 800 seemed incredibly light. Those 800 cases can, at first instance, or district court level, in Ukraine, include serious crimes, such as rape and murder and can also involve a sitting jury, if required.

Judge Keane, and others in attendance, such as Garda Prosecutor Sgt Paul Kelly, heard that, in Ukraine, drink-driving and road-traffic offences speed through the system due to the use of body cams, which means that, in the words of Judge Shevryina, “everything is visible.” Sgt Kelly said that gardaí are in favour of the introduction of body cams here.

The Ukrainians also referred to the electronic allocation of cases, which also accelerates the process. While 800 cases a year for judges might be typical in the Eastern European country, some judges could have a caseload of 1,500, a figure still dwarfed by the number dealt with by judges in this jurisdiction.

Ms Sheehan said that Ukraine used to have 8,000 judges, but now has 5,000 for a population of 43m. However, the numbers still stack up compared to Ireland, where, according to the Association of Judges in Ireland (AJ), Ireland had the lowest number of judges per 100,000 inhabitants of 47 countries examined by the European Commission in 2010.

That number was 3.2, whereas, at the time, the comparable rate in Ukraine was 19.3. The district court in West Cork has heard Judge James McNulty, on more than one occasion, lament the shortage of judges.

Another reason for the lighter caseload in Ukraine is the smaller number of appeals. According to the visiting delegation, 5% of criminal cases result in appeal and 10% of civil cases do. Anyone who spends time in the district courts in this country will know that any sentence will, almost every time,be quickly accompanied by a defence solicitor requesting that the judge fix recognisance for an appeal.

That’s not to say that the visiting judges didn’t see room for improvement. For example, Judge Shevryina referred to the requirement for written judgements in cases and how these judgements, which can run to dozens of pages, must then be read out in court.

Judge Keane said that this was the situation in Ireland, too, particularly in family law cases. She was candid about why some judges prefer not to exclusively focus on family law or child-protection cases, and listened intently as the Ukrainian visitors outlined how judges were not politically appointed. The president signs off on appointments, but “he cannot say no”, according to Judge Shevryina.

The Ukrainian judges had met with the Chief Justice, Frank Clarke, had visited courts in Dublin, and then had come to Cork, where, in addition to sitting in during a morning of district court activity in Clonakilty, they were to meet solicitors in Cork City, before attending an event in University College Cork, all in a week when the Court of Appeal was, in a new departure, sitting in Cork.

While EUAM is striving to help the Ukrainian authorities reform its civilian security sector, there was an unmistakable sense that Judge Keane would like to see more progress in other areas here. As discussion continued with the Ukrainian delegation, she commented on the possibility of a school for judges.

“Some of the judges in the Court of Appeal have been going to Scotland,” she said, referring to a course held there for judges, adding that the issue here was that such courses were not funded.

It all ended in smiles and handshakes and in one of those rare occasions when photographs were allowed in court, the assembled judges gathered for a picture at the bench. Given the apparent advantages enjoyed by judges in Ukraine, maybe it’s time for an Irish delegation to pay a return visit.

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