Jan Macháček

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Czech Business Weekly

Judges and teachers face performance reviews

10. 12. 2007
Minister of Justice Jiří Pospíšil has announced proposals to punish bad and lazy judges more effectively, or squeeze them out of the system altogether.

The young minister’s proposals are designed to tackle some serious problems within the judiciary. Many judges are fighting (or more precisely not fighting) astonishingly long delays in processing their case loads. There are extreme examples of 18-year delays, but delays of five to 10 years are considered quite normal. The second issue is that some judges are making decisions that are either contrary to the legal norms or have no discernible link to the legal norms. Finally, there are examples of judges who visibly have troubles with discipline—alcohol, working hours, etc.

Disciplinary committees at present consist entirely of judges and therefore punishments for poor performance are extremely soft, perhaps a fine of say 10 percent of their salaries, which is laughable. It is clear that judges on disciplinary committees feel a strong sense of loyalty to their colleagues, either on the basis of friendship or judicial solidarity.

There is a growing pressure from voters and citizens to “do something” about our judges and people are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the whole judicial system and its wonky verdicts.

But we should be very careful about “doing something” because the independence of the judiciary is the bedrock of the rule of law, which also happens to be extremely fragile. There is perhaps a parallel to be drawn here with journalism. We all know that most journalists are poorly educated, lacking in life experience and probably not very smart to begin with, but the freedom of the press is still a most precious thing, one of the pillars of Western civilization. In other words: better to have stupid journalists who are free to speak than political control over journalism.

The same is true of the judicial system. Anything is better, no matter how flawed, than political control over judges.

The minister of justice proposes a system in which disciplinary committees would consist of six people. Three of them judges and three of them lawyers of other kinds: notaries, attorneys, distrainers. Three against three should mean that no side has the upper hand and should engender lengthy deliberative discussions. The trouble is that in the proposal it is the ministry of justice that wants to select the three “nonjudicial” lawyers.

Opening disciplinary committees to lawyers outside the judiciary is a good idea, but increasing the role of the ministry is not. The connection between the ministry (and therefore the government) and judges should be made weaker, not stronger. For instance, the courts should have their own fiscal chapter operated under the Supreme Court out of the reach of government control.

Also, while punishments over the delays and ill-discipline of judges are fitting, introducing punishments for verdicts that are not compatible with legislation is highly controversial. All the judges whose verdicts diverge from the norm will be punished. Some are standing out because they do not understand the legislation and others because they are courageous and think deeply about the spirit of the law rather than rely on common sense. How would the disciplinary committees distinguish between the two?

And as a footnote, distrainers should be eliminated from any serious proposal. At this moment, their reputation is more than tragic in this country.

Teachers should be paid more

Many media commentators who regard themselves as right-wing opposed last week’s one-day strike by teachers. They said teachers were holding children and parents hostage rather than fulfilling their basic duties. Right-wing education reformers also argue that teachers pay should be made more dependent upon performance and that the director of a school should be the one, as in any other company, who decides it. Teachers’ unions are unsurprisingly opposed to such notions.

Unions come in for a lot of criticism in this country, partly because anything called a union is considered either old-fashioned, proto-communistic, or even just plain communist.

It is certainly true that wages should be differentiated on the basis of efficiency. The unions can oppose such a measure as forcefully as they will, but it is not for them to decide upon it. The legal norms must be changed in Parliament and the house can decide against the will of the unions. Thus, whatever their opinion may be, the unions are not responsible for the current system of wages.

Every successive government in this country promises more money for teachers—who remain chronically underpaid. No government changes anything. The unions are also right in claiming that the real wages of teachers will be going down next year. Is it really more important to support the region of Brdy with billions of crowns? Is it really so important to pay Nomura perhaps Kč 7 billion (€ 268.1 million) in settlements in a deal that is still undisclosed to taxpayers?

A teacher in an elementary or high school should be a respected citizen with a decent salary and not someone reduced to a lifetime diet of instant soup. There should also be more male teachers, able to support a family of two children out of their salary. In this country, teachers are overwhelmingly women and if a man ever does the job, he is invariably regarded as some kind of weirdo. A lot of Czech teachers live their lives in a state of constant anxiety over money and supporting their families, reducing their capacity to do their jobs. Those who stay in the profession often have to have additional jobs such as taxi driving to get by, as was depicted in the popular movie “Graffiti” (Gympl).

From this perspective, the one-day protest of teachers was entirely justified.

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