In Peripheral Areas, Systemic Neglect

The courts in Israel's outlying towns were established to bring legal services to people who found it difficult to travel to the bigger cities. The Courts Administration, however, now says the existence of these courts cannot be justified, and there should be no more than four central courts.

But the mayors of the small towns where these courts are located, such as Dimona, Beit Shemesh, Kiryat Shmona and Katzrin, are bringing political pressure to bear to prevent their closure.

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch has noted that the number of cases Israeli judges handle is among the highest in the world. However, the courts in outlying districts that Haaretz surveyed for this article seemed to operate under less strain than is familiar elsewhere. According to Courts Administration figures, at any given moment, an Israeli judge has about 1,500 cases in his on her docket and deals with about 1,000 cases over a year.

In comparison, 959 new files were opened last year in Beit Shemesh, 318 of which were civil suits and 275 criminal.

Haaretz has found that "classic" cases for courts distant from the center, such as those handling local disputes or small claims, were in the minority. For example, in the Katzrin Magistrate's Court last year, 762 court cases were opened, only 92 of which involved small claims and seven involved local disputes.

In Dimona, out of 1,662 cases opened last year, only 192 were small claims and 440 were local matters.

In Kiryat Shmona, out of 3,677 cases, only 368 were small claims, but 1,003 involved local disputes.

Only the Kiryat Shmona Magistrate's Court has two judges' positions; all the rest have one.

With a single judge presiding over a courthouse in an outlying town, experienced lawyers can shop around the region for a judge who they believe might be sympathetic to their case. A person who files a civil suit in the Dimona Magistrate's Court, for example, knows that it will come before Judge Avishai Zevulun, who hears all the cases in Dimona except for criminal cases involving young offenders.

A defense lawyer who works in the south said yesterday that the fact a single judge handles all the criminal cases is a problem, because when the judge hears a case for remand, he knows about all the previous offenses for which the individual has stood trial and when the accused comes before him for judgment, he cannot help but be influenced by prior information about the accused's past.

Another problem of having a single judge is that when the judge is ill or has to do army reserve duty, for example, the court is essentially forced to shut down.

Courts Administration head Judge Moshe Gal told Haaretz he believes the number of courts should be reduced. "The courts are not like an HMO that has to be your home," he said. "I don't think you need a court in every outlying town if there is a court in the district. Distances are short in Israel. However, regarding small claims and local disputes, I think there should be greater distribution of courts."