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  JUDICIAL SYSTEMS
Evaluation scheme

The "Strasbourg Programme" for reducing backlogs and accelerating the processing of civil cases in the Turin Court

The "Strasbourg Programme" is Italy's first attempt to manage court cases in such a way as to bring about a substantial reduction in the backlog of cases and speed up the processing of civil cases. Once it had been established that it was intolerable, in the light of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, for civil cases to take more than three years, the Office of the President of the Turin Court embarked, early in 2001, on a targeted comparative inventory of all cases pending.

In practice this entailed:

The President of the Court then introduced a scheme to be applied immediately. Guidelines to the rapid, targeted processing of very long-standing cases were issued. These cases were to be divided into categories (for example, those over ten years old, those over five years old, and so on, and distinguished by differently coloured covers or by a warning slip). The guidelines, in the form of a circular or recommendation, contain detailed practical advice for all civil judges (for example, it is prohibited purely and simply to postpone a hearing, by analogy with the procedural rules: the last paragraph of Article 420 of the Code of Civil Procedure reads "It is prohibited purely and simply to postpone hearings"; judges are urged to make rigorous use of the powers provided for in Article 175 of the Code of Civil Procedure and reduce the duration of postponements to a minimum, and so on). The guidelines are designed to ensure uniform practice in all sections, with due regard for the full independence of each judge responsible for preparing cases for trial.
The President first forwarded the draft circular to the Turin Bar Council, both in order to obtain the approval of this institution, which is closely concerned with the administration of justice in civil cases, and to ensure that defence counsels in individual cases did not interpret the new measures as gratuitous harassment or as an unexpected one-off initiative on the part of a particular judge.
Implementation of the "Strasbourg Programme" immediately produced very favourable results. A mere 10 months after the previous inventory, the figures showed that there had been an appreciable decline in the number of civil cases pending for over three years.

It should be noted that:
1. In the first half of 2001, the overall statistics for the eight civil sections of the main court showed that:

2. The following table shows the progress made thereafter:

Civil cases in all the civil sections (including the labour litigation section and the detached sections)

Backlog as at 1 January

Percentage reduction in backlog

As at 1 January 2001

39,144

 

As at 1 January 2002

36,485

6.7%

As at 1 January 2003

30,518

16.3%

As at 1 January 2004

28,752

5.7%

As at 1 January 2005

28,762

Trend reversed

As at 1 January 2006

28,616

0.5%

Percentage reduction over five years

26.6%

Average reduction in backlog per year

5.36%

3. As at 30 November 2007, out of a total backlog of 24,915 cases:

The official statistics issued by the Ministry of Economic Affairs show that the judicial district of Turin is, after that of Trento, the one in Italy that has elicited the fewest appeals under the "Pinto Act" (under which the State is obliged to pay compensation if judicial proceedings are not completed within a reasonable time): it accounted for 66 appeals out of a total of 46,648 appeals in Italy during the period from 2003 to 2006. For the purposes of comparison, it may be observed that, in 2004 alone, 2,021 appeals were submitted on the grounds of excessively lengthy proceedings in courts in the Naples and Cagliari districts, 862 in Rome and 362 in Venice. Of the 66 appeals just mentioned, only 39 were upheld, in contrast to 3,000 in the case of the Rome Court. The Turin Court is considered by the Ministry of Justice to be one of the Italian courts that best complies with the reasonable time requirement, in the light of the average length of civil proceedings.

As far back as 1994, at its Athens Congress, the International Association of Judges addressed the subject of court proceedings from the angle of reducing their length. Ten years later, the Consultative Council of European Judges (CCJE) set up by the Council of Europe issued Opinion No. 6 on "fair trial within a reasonable time and judge’s role in trials", while the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ) has, since 2004, been engaged in activities designed precisely to improve the quality and effectiveness of the work of the judiciary in Europe. For all these efforts, there is a worsening backlog virtually everywhere in Europe. Even cases before the European Court of Human Rights are subject to increasing delays, precisely because of the growing number of cases concerning violations of Articles 6 and the "reasonable time" requirement. Clearly, therefore, any measure to reduce the backlog cannot but serve as an example to all European systems.

The "Strasbourg Programme" is, of course, geared to the features of Italian procedural law, under which lawyers play a very important part in managing the processing of civil cases, while judges sometimes have their hands tied by the rules of the Code of Civil Procedure. The purpose of the programme is therefore to allow judges to discover and better understand the powers they wield, even in an environment in which every procedural decision appears to be predetermined by law. One of the conclusions of the above-mentioned Congress of the International Association of Judges is that judges should be able to intervene actively in the management of proceedings in order to speed them up and prevent abuses. Clearly, therefore, this is a requirement that is felt to exist virtually worldwide. The instructions that the President of the Turin Court issued with a view to prompting judges to be more active are designed to achieve precisely this.

Lastly, it is worth noting that in 2006 the "Strasbourg Programme", one of the 18 entries received from nine European countries, was given a special award by the jury for the European Commission/Council of Europe "Crystal Scales of Justice" prize. The Programme also foreshadowed the Compendium of "best practices" published by the CEPEJ in 2006 (document CEPEJ(2006)13). This shows that it can be transposed to other European courts, subject of course to the adjustments required by the features specific to each system.

Mario Barbuto
President of the Turin Court