benatar - Courtesy Courts Administration - February 9 2011
Maurice Benatar. Photo by Courtesy Courts Administration
Text size
Maya Levin
Judge Moshe Gal. Photo by Maya Levin

A Jerusalem judge killed himself yesterday and left behind a note attributing his suicide to his overwhelming workload.

Three weeks ago, the president of Jerusalem's Local Affairs Court, on which Judge Maurice Benatar served, had asked him to take a break from hearing cases so he could finish writing verdicts that he had put off because of the press of new cases. A source familiar with the court system said this was essentially equivalent to an order to either resign or face a complaint to the judicial ombudsman about his backlog. Benatar was supposed to have given his answer in the coming days.

A source in the Courts Administration said court president Shulamit Dotan and Courts Administration director Moshe Gal had held repeated talks with Benatar over the last three years about his slow pace of work, which resulted in hundreds of verdicts being delayed, some of them for years.

Benatar committed suicide at his home in Maccabim yesterday by suffocating himself with a plastic bag. Police said it was definitely a case of suicide rather than murder.

Several judges yesterday blamed the Courts Administration for Benatar's death. "The system treated him inhumanely and humiliated him," said one. "They pushed him into a corner."

Benatar, who was married with two daughters, was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe ) and immigrated to Israel in 1975. He began working at the local affairs court in 2002. Five years ago, he was promoted to the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, but about 18 months he ago he returned to the local court.

His mother passed away three months ago.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys who frequented Benatar's courtroom agreed yesterday that he was an outstanding judge, very humane, who made excellent decisions.

"He's the best judge I ever knew," one lawyer said last night.

The Jerusalem Local Affairs Court, where Benatar worked, is staffed by two full-time judges and one part-time judge, who altogether hear some 3,000 cases a year. The Jerusalem municipality had asked the Finance Ministry a few months ago to add another judge to the court to ease their workload, but the treasury refused.

The court mainly hears planning and building cases, but it also deals with parking tickets and other municipal issues.

Benatar "was an incredible person," said attorney Sami Ershied, who represents East Jerusalem Palestinians accused of illegal building. "He radiated humanity in the courtroom. His slow pace stemmed from the due care of a judge who didn't want to issue poorly thought-out rulings. He wanted to give everyone his day in court and make the right decision. Apparently, the system didn't understand this."

Attorneys who worked with Benatar said that, unlike many other judges, he never pressured the sides to reach a compromise in order to close the case quickly.

"Anyone who appeared before him could be sure of receiving due process; he gave service to the end, uncompromisingly," said one attorney.

Attorney Ziad Kawar termed the judge's death as "a great loss to the legal system and to humanity. He was a wonderful person. He was a judge I admired from the bottom of my heart. He listened to every citizen."

Municipal prosecutor Einat Ayalon, who appeared in the judge's courtroom every day for years, said she was "shocked and hurting," adding that Benatar never showed any signs of being under pressure.

"He had an exceptional judicial temperament," she said. "He treated everyone who came to his courtroom with respect, especially those who weren't represented by lawyers. When defendants weren't represented, he would read them the entire indictment and carefully explain all the implications. That is really exceptional."

He was devoted to his work, Ayalon added, and was often still in his office at 8 or 9 P.M.

That devotion, his acquaintances said, may be why he chose to commit suicide rather than simply resigning. "He couldn't not do what was asked of him," said one.

"The system pushed him into it," added another. "It asked more of him than he could bear."

This is hardly the first time the issue of judges' excessive workloads has come to the fore. Last June, magistrate's court judge Yisgav Nakdimon resigned due to what he deemed an excessive workload. Shortly afterward, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch addressed this issue publicly, saying it was impossible for judges to finish their allotted work without laboring into the evening and even late into the night.

"Their work schedule doesn't take into account the time it takes to write [verdicts]," she said. "It's not true to say that a judge can't fulfill the many obligations of his public position under these circumstances, but it's very hard and very demanding."

A comparative study conducted in 2007 found that Israeli judges had the third-highest workload of the 17 countries examined. In Israel, the average judge handles 2,335 cases a year, it found - compared to 881 in Italy, 719 in Germany and 61 in Norway.

In part, this is because Israel is a litigious country, with 184 cases per 1,000 residents. That compares to 177 in Germany, 165 in Spain and only 15 in Sweden.

Another study, conducted about a year ago, found that Israel's family court judges actually have the heaviest workload, hearing cases 225 days a year on average, compared to 164 for district court judges.

Judges also complain that the poor physical conditions in many courts make their work more difficult.