An Important Judicial Reform

The Supreme Court deals with issues of little fundamental importance and is struggling under an excessive work load; real reform is required.

The Supreme Court was intended to set norms and rule on issues of fundamental judicial importance. In countries like Britain, the United States and Canada, it is customary for the supreme instance to choose the issues it deals with. But in Israel, the situation is different. The Supreme Court, apart from its role as the High Court of Justice, serves mainly as an appeals court for criminal and civil cases referred to it by the district courts.

Thus the Supreme Court deals with issues of little fundamental importance and is struggling under an excessive work load. More than 10,000 cases a year are refered to it, and its justices write hundreds of reasoned decisions every year, compared to the dozens issued by supreme courts in other countries.

This explains Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch's call for establishing an appellate court to handle appeals of district court rulings, while the Supreme Court would deal only with fundamental issues in the criminal and civil realm, as well as serving as the High Court of Justice.

The Orr Committee considered but rejected a proposal to establish a separate appellate court in its 1987 report. The committee believed setting up such an instance would rock the system, hurt judges who are not appointed to it and require considerable resources. Instead, the committee supported expanding the magistrate's courts' authority, so that the district courts would function mainly as appellate courts. That would mean their rulings would no longer be automatically appealable to the Supreme Court.

Since then, some authority has been transferred from the district to the magistrate's courts and from the Supreme Court to the district courts, but the burden on the Supreme Court has not been alleviated much. The district courts continue to function as a first instance in many cases, while the Supreme Court still deals with appeals, most of which have no significance as precedents.

A real reform is required, with its centerpiece being a national appellate court consisting of experienced district court judges. This would strengthen the Supreme Court and improve service to the public.

But Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman objects. Apparently, he assumes the Knesset would refuse to grant the Supreme Court the superior status that would follow from entrusting it solely with important matters.

Such an excuse, however, is unacceptable. Strengthening and streamlining the judicial system are vital public goals, and the necessary political support must be mobilized to advance and implement them.