Tartu County Court judge, chairman of the Training Council
former Head of the Legal Information and Judicial Training Department of the Supreme Court
The development of the judicial training system has been a long-term process. The first judicial training council convened on 13 September 2002. Starting from 1 January 2009, the Training Council is served by the Supreme Court. Today, we can confidently say that the system for training judges in Estonia is one of the most professional in Europe. Besides strong domestic exchange of information, we also actively share experience with foreign institutions.
A sustainable development plan is one guarantee of the independence of the judiciary. We still have to consider that in-service training for judges depends largely on how Estonian society sees the system of justice as a whole. Although we can constantly develop our system, we still have to be aware that in a rapidly changing world, we will never attain perfection. Truth be told, there is no such thing as perfection, we can only strive to be better.
The goal of training is to ensure that judges derive a benefit from the topics covered in their everyday work. They have to give us self-confidence and encourage us to be creative and efficient in our work. Each year after approving the training programme, we are satisfied that it proved to be so good. Yet still, when the next year rolls around, we have to admit that we can be even better, and so from year to the next.
One might think that preparing training programmes and organizing training is an easy and unemotional process. Actually, it’s the opposite. Putting together a training programme depends on a number of factors, and also on feedback from different sources. What sorts of legislative amendments are on the way? What are the problem areas in the justice system? Do judges know how to write court decisions? Do they know how to act based on the situation? Do they know procedural or substantive law? Is there anything they don’t know? If they don’t know, who does? All these questions incite more lively discussions than the average.
The salience and importance of these questions has to be assessed separately, if new topics need to be weighed. Who needs training more – recently inducted new judges or experienced senior judges? How to distribute the numbers of training courses for these target groups? How to differentiate? Should everyone with a desire be trained on all topics? What kinds of study materials should be given support for publishing? Who is the training staff? Where to find trainers and how? How to motivate the training staff? How to get feedback from judges regarding quality of training? How can we get that feedback to work for us?
The main question is always about how to make the right choices. The goal is to put together a high-quality, integral and salient programme. Judges’ studies are characterized by a focus on the problem: judges want the training course to provide solutions to the problems they actually deal with. Because of that, the impact of training depends on to what extent the programme is tied to the perceived need for training. Thus it can be confidently argued that there is always room for growth in judicial training. The training system must keep up with the times and be capable of adaptation. The training programme offered to judges must cover not only the law but walks of life that tie into justice.
The judicial training programme is covered in most detail by the annual training report. Last year, 54 training courses and roundtables were held in the 57-day judicial training programme and people took part in them on 2658 occasions. The main participants were judges and judicial clerks.
Functions of the Training Council
The Training Council heads up the judicial training system and is responsible for training of judges. The Council approves the judicial training strategy and the annual training programmes based on it. The Council also approves the programme for the examination of judges and the programme for training courses for skills of newly appointed first and second instance judges and specifies the period within which it is to be completed.
The operations of the Training Council is served by the Legal Information and Training Department of the Supreme Court, whose task is to determine the training needs of judges, to prepare a training strategy for judges, an annual training programme and a judicial examination programme. In addition, the department analyses the results of the training, ensures the preparation of teaching and methodological materials, helps to prepare and select trainers, and prepares an annual report on the training of judges for the Training Council.
Composition of the Training Council
The Training Council consists of two judges of the Supreme Court, two judges of the second instance, two from the first instance, and a representative of the Prosecutor’s Office, the Bar Association, the University of Tartu and the Ministry of Justice. The term of office of a member of the Training Council is three years.
From May 2020, the Training Council will include Kalev Saare, Heiki Loot, Oliver Kask, Madis Ernits, Tiia Mõtsnik, Kaire Hänilene, Imbi Jürgen, Raul Narits and Siret Jürgenson. The chairman of the training council is Margit Jõgeva. However, some changes were made to the composition of the Supervisory Board in 2021: Instead of Raul Narits, a long-term representative of the University of Tartu, Katre Luhamaa became a member, and Kaidi Lippus replaced Siret Jürgenson as the minister responsible for the field. Peeter Pällin has taken over as a full member in connection with Madis Ernits’s temporary transfer to the European Court of Justice. The alternate members are Velmar Brett and Kaire Pullerits.
Judicial Training Strategy 2021–2024
The Training Council started updating the strategy in autumn 2020, and discussions took place at several meetings. Considerable feedback on the draft strategy was provided by judges directly as well as by courts and partner organizations. The strategy was approved by the Training Council on 22 June 2021.
Key areas for training in the strategy period include: supporting novice judges, ensuring the quality of judicial decisions, better managing court proceedings, developing digital literacy, developing judicial values, supporting the development of a training system for advocates, facilitating access to training for the public and the media, and supporting compilation and availability of new educational materials.
The 2022 training programme is based on a new training strategy for judges. Efforts have been made to better interlink and diversify training with clearly defined goals. E-learning, short forms of online training and inclusive discussions, have been introduced.
Rotation of judges
The issue of rotation of judges in the Training Council in 2021 was raised as a significant one. It was noted that the current rotation system is built on individual cases and involves high risks and sometimes insurmountable obstacles for the judge.
Section 58 of the Courts Act provides for the possibility for a judge to rotate to another state office or to a university in public law and keep the same salary they were making before. However, the possibility of rotation to another state agency has been used very rarely in Estonia. The possibility of rotating to a public university has never been used under the procedure prescribed by the law. The usual practice of universities tends to be for the judge to work as a lecturer in addition to their main job.
Why is there little use of the rotation option? The main reason is that the possibility of a judge returning to office is uncertain. In essence, a judge has the right to return only if there is a vacancy in the court to return to. Going to work elsewhere also depends on the decision of the chairman of the court and the opinion of the full court. If it is not a large court, one where the workload of other colleagues is fairly marginal, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the consent of colleagues. A judge is independent, but in order to exercise that independence, the consent of the chairman of the court is required, which in turn depends on the consent of the people whose workload is increasing. Those granting consent have an interest in the making of the decision, thus creating a conflict of interest that is unnecessary in this form.
According to the current law, it is not clear whether a judge could rotate in addition to the ministry or another executive authority, such as to the office of the Chancellor of Justice, the National Audit Office, the Office of the President or the Chancellery of the Riigikogu. According to the explanatory memorandum to the Act, in addition to the Chief Public Prosecutor, the office of the Prosecutor is also covered, but the wording of the laws on the Chancellery of Justice, the State Audit Office, the Office of the President or the Chancellery of the Riigikogu does not allow such an unequivocal conclusion to be drawn.
However, the need for a horizontal career is clearly recognized among judges. Horizontal careers become more important as more courts are merged and the judicial system becomes more concentrated. The central obstacle is that other colleagues rightly ask who is doing the work during the rotation. Filling a vacant post entails a risk for the rotating judge that he or she may no longer be able to return to office.
Horizontal careers not only mean working elsewhere, but also specializing within a court. For example, if a judge who specializes in criminal matters wants to specialize in civil matters in the future, or vice versa.
The Training Council decided that the system of rotation and long-term traineeship of judges needed to be improved and saw a clear need to support the professional development of judges through horizontal career paths as well.
On the proposal of the chairman of the Training Council, the Council for the Administration of Courts discussed the needs and possibilities of encouraging the rotation of judges in the autumn of 2021 and supported the activities of the Training Council in developing proposals for the rotation and transfer of judges. The Training Council authorized its representative to participate in discussions on the rotation and return of judges at the Ministry of Justice.
Changes to the new judge training programme
According to the Courts Act, the judicial training programme must include annual training with specific content to enable the incoming judge to develop his or her professional skills.
In 2021, a survey of training and induction experience for incoming judges was conducted to gather feedback from judges who have taken office in the last five years (2017-2021) and who are required to complete a skills programme.
67% of judges who have taken office in the last five years (30 respondents) responded to the survey. The feedback on the content, trainers and organization of the trainings was mostly positive; the training courses taught by experienced practitioners (judges) received a high rating. The main criticism from respondents was the availability of important training, especially at the beginning of the term of office. Some respondents questioned the importance of some of the training courses and said that they should not be mandatory. The study also briefly addressed more general issues: support provided to new judges for their induction and mentoring. Respondents also expressed a high appreciation for the support and help of colleagues and supervisors in organizational matters. The main problems were considered to be high workload, lack of systematic instructional materials and instruction.
Based on the feedback and the analysis of the programme, the Training Council decided to make changes to the content and structure of the new judge training programme. Training in the management of proceedings and the preparation of court decisions will continue as before; it is very important to give each participant individual feedback on the decision. Training in judicial ethics will also remain part of the programme. However, conciliation training will continue to be compulsory for civil and administrative law judges. If interested, judges in the field of crime can participate in it, too, but this is not obligatory for them. Training courses known previously as time management and communication training are undergoing changes in both form and content. Time management will be replaced by work process and team management training, communication training and stress training with an individual conversation and self-development workshop. The programme still includes training in the use of databases and media communication, and training in the Estonian language.
In addition, an induction seminar for new judges will be organized in May 2022 as a pilot. Its main purpose is to provide support to newly appointed judges and to increase their motivation to take up the new post. The seminar will cover the objectives of the legal system in the functioning of the state, judicial ethics and the prevention of conflicts of interest, the design of work processes, the management of the procedural group and media communication. If the pilot seminar is successful, consideration will be given to making it an annual one.
Mentoring is also important. Its establishment must be systematically and consistently supported by mentor training. This is not related just to training, but about the role and activities of junior judges more broadly. From day one, the junior judge will deal with matters completely by themselves, for which they may not necessarily have enough experience. However, a young judge is not usually given a “handicap” in terms of the seriousness and social significance of the matters.
Training of court officers
The Supreme Court continued to organize legal training for court officers in 2021 on the basis of an agreement with the Ministry of Justice. The main target groups for legal training for court officers are court secretaries, clerks, registry and land registry secretaries and office directors. The training courses took place on the following topics: criminal and misdemeanour proceedings, civil court proceedings, registry proceedings, development of property and land registry law and practical problems (in the form of case studies), for a total of five training days. Court officers were also offered the opportunity to take an online course, “basics of law for non-lawyers”, and a follow-up course on the basics of law.
The year of judicial training for court officers could be assessed as successful based on the feedback received. The legal training of court officials will continue in the same way in 2022, i.e. on the basis of a co-operation agreement between the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Justice.
Training of judicial clerks
One of the sources of the growth of the judiciary is judicial clerks, whose training is increasingly needed in this context. In the last six years, 42% of the judges appointed to the Court of first instance were previously judicial clerks. Comprehensive and thorough training of judicial clerks is essential to ensure a high-quality legal system and the growth of the judiciary. To alleviate the problem, in 2013 the Supreme Court and the Training Council partially opened the training of judges to judicial clerks, although the Supreme Court and the Training Council were not under obligation to do so.
In recent years, the Training Council, in co-operation with the Supreme Court, has repeatedly drawn the attention of the Ministry of Justice to the need to develop a training system for judicial clerks. The new training strategy also devotes attention to this. In order to improve the quality of judicial work, judges and court officials need to be trained in a coordinated way where possible. It is necessary to provide training courses tailored to the specific needs of judicial clerks, who are important supporters of the work of the courts and form a pool of future prospective judges. They should also be enabled to take part in courses geared specifically to their skills, which would allow them to discuss in smaller groups. In order for judicial clerks to be able to improve their skills in European Union law, they must also be provided with foreign training.
In 2021, the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Justice entered into a co-operation agreement, under which the ministry allocated funds for the participation of judicial clerks and assistant judges in the training of judges and for the organization of two separate training courses for judicial clerks.
Discussions are ongoing on what the training of judicial clerks and judicial assistants could be like in the coming years. There have been three possible principles under discussion.
- One is to amend the Courts Act to require the obligation of the Supreme Court to organize the training of judicial clerks, and the Supreme Court would provide the necessary budget itself in the state budget strategy/state budget process in future.
- The second option is to continue on the basis of agreements (annual contracts will be concluded, training pricing will be agreed, the volume of training intended solely for judicial clerks and the principles for allocating funds).
- Or third: in future, there could be one training institution in Estonia (a separate institution or, for example, an in-service training centre established at the University of Tartu) that offers legal training to all representatives of the legal professions.
Initially, however, we will proceed as follows – in 2022 (and 2023) the participation of judicial clerks in the training organized by the Supreme Court will be financed by the Ministry of Justice to the same extent. The aim is to expand the specific training courses offered to judicial clerks.
In addition, an agreement was signed with the Ministry of Justice in 2021 under which the Supreme Court will be the liaison body for court officers in training provided by the European Judicial Training Network. This means that the Supreme Court assumes the obligations related to providing training to court officers within the framework of the European Judicial Training Network programme. The courts themselves send the information on those wishing to participate to the Supreme Court, and this is primarily aimed at senior judicial clerks.
In May 2019, the Training Council, the Estonian Bar Association and the Prosecutor’s Office agreed on the starting points and good practice for training co-operation in order to improve the quality of legal training in law. The parties to the agreement stated that co-operation in the organization of training contributes to the wider dissemination of expertise, the raising of the level of training, the exchange of knowledge and experience in order to enhance the protection of human rights and the efficient use of resources. According to the co-operation agreement, since 2019, judges have had the opportunity to participate in both Prosecutor’s Office and Bar Association training. In 2021, 15 judges participated in the Bar Association training, but unfortunately no judges participated in the Prosecutor’s Office training. Both prosecutors and lawyers still have a strong interest in the training of judges: prosecutors participated in judge training on 97 occasions; and lawyer training, on 147 occasions.
At the beginning of each year, after registration for judicial training, the Training Council decides which training to open to lawyers and prosecutors, based on the objectives of the training and the number of participants. When planning and organizing training, the Training Council and the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Bar Association proceed from the needs of their main target group.
It is a pleasure to note that the level of training of judges has been steadily rising in recent years. According to the participants, the trainings in 2021 met expectations and satisfaction with trainers was high.
Since 2011, the Training Council has recognized the best trainers who have excelled in high-quality training or have other great merits in developing the training system. The selection will be made on the basis of the opinions of the judges and judicial clerks. The best trainer is announced at the reception of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court prior to the plenary session of the judges.
Last year, the Training Council decided to recognize Kadri Krebstein, who had worked for the good functioning of the training organization, and worked as a specialist in the Legal Information and Training Department of the Supreme Court from 1 October 2014 to 31 October 2020.
Sten Lind, Julia Laffranque, Meelis Eerik, Kaupo Paal, Margit Vutt, Villu Kõve and Indrek Rahi have received the recognition of best trainer and Eerik Kergandberg has received the recognition of the all-time best trainer.
We receive regular information about the need for training through feedback surveys. In addition, interviews are held with judges, lawyers and prosecutors to identify training needs. Information on the need for training is also obtained from the analysis of court practice performed in the Legal Information and Training Department of the Supreme Court. Many topics also arise at the round tables.
It is a pleasure to say that the feedback from the training courses held online due to the pandemic has been generally positive, the participants in the online trainings were active participants in speaking and discussion. Online trainings save participants time by not having to travel to and from the training venue. Online training will continue to be part of the programme, as will hybrid training, both online and on-site.
The Training Council and the Legal Information and Training Department of the Supreme Court thank all the judges and judicial clerks for sharing their views on the training programme and taking the time to provide in-depth feedback on the plan. Also a big thank you to the court chairmen who are always willing to talk and share ideas about the training programme. The assistance of the representatives of the Faculty of Law of the University of Tartu, the Office of the Chancellor of Justice, the Bar Association, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Institute of Forensic Science and the Ministry of Justice is also highly valued.
Be sure to click on the “Tell us about a training need” button on the courts’ intranet.
 Each individual participation was counted. For example, if a person took part in five training courses over the course of a year, five participations were counted. The number of participants includes participation in training courses held as part of judicial training.