Following Sunday’s cabinet decision to relax the regulations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus somewhat, Israel began to take some slow steps back toward routine and normalcy. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the eased restrictions on Saturday night – before they were approved by the cabinet, leaving the ministers to act as a mere rubber stamp or cheerleading squad – the public can resume shopping in certain stores and gradually begin to return to work.
The cabinet warned that these steps are reversible and that the restrictions could be tightened again based on the rate at which COVID-19 continues to spread, but for now the trend seems clear. Under these circumstances, it would behoove the judicial system to resume its full, orderly work to the extent possible.
When the pandemic erupted and a state of emergency was declared, Justice Minister Amir Ohana was the first of the ministers to act, and in a rather suspicious manner ordered the work of the courts frozen only a few days before the prime minister’s trial was meant to begin. It later emerged that the move was coordinated with Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and the courts administrator, Yigal Marzel. The state of emergency declared for the courts was then extended to May 10.
The courts are operating on an emergency footing, meaning that a large number of civil and criminal cases are being delayed. The emergency situation is creating a growing backlog that will be felt when the courts resume operation. The Supreme Court is continuing to operate, primarily to hear petitions while sitting as the High Court of Justice. The hearings it is holding – including the one that was broadcast last week, which dealt with the coronavirus-related digital surveillance of citizens by the Shin Bet security service and the police – demonstrate that the courts can function during this period while meticulously observing social-distancing policies.
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To all these we must add the basic right of the public to have access to the court system. It’s no coincidence that the cabinet has no authority to promulgate emergency regulations that close the courts. The ability to conduct legal proceedings is a basic civil right. Suspending it during the coronavirus crisis via an order signed by a minister severely undermines this basic right, which is the key to realizing all other rights. It also undermines the principle of separation of powers.
Reviving all the cases being dealt with by the court system is crucial for society to function and to enforce criminal law. Particularly important is Netanyahu’s own trial, which is now scheduled to open on May 24 – two weeks after the current emergency situation for the courts expires. The courts must resume full operation immediately, even if this isn’t in keeping with the interests of the accused from Balfour Street.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.