In August 2007 crime fiction admirers in Latvia were thrilled to read a book, Kitchen Justice, describing an influential litigation attorney, the trial cases his office handled, and his secret relationship with judges and public figures. The protagonist was immediately recognized by readers, and the legal community was able to identify heroes less known to the public: the judges in the legal proceedings, who were privately communicating with the prominent attorney about the cases they were working on. It was apparent that the disguised author had based his fictional novel on a real-life characters and cases, and without delay, Latvia’s Chief Justice convened an extraordinary session of Supreme Court judges to set up a special panel of five reputable judges with a mandate to investigate the novel’s plot. The commission interviewed dozens of judges who had been identified in Kitchen Justice.
In November 2007, the commission delivered its report, revealing a rather grim picture: a crooked system in which judges were meeting and discussing cases with attorneys in private, and in which lawyers sometimes transferred their files to judges so their reasoning could be implemented into judgments.
A few judges admitted to such ex-parte communications and conceded that the conduct was inappropriate. At the same time, a considerable number of the judges allegedly portrayed in the book vehemently denied any involvement or relationship with the protagonist. Their line of defense was plain and simple: there was no proof of their wrongdoing; only the dubious literary text of an anonymous author. Moreover, they said, even if specific evidence had been presented, the statute of limitation protected them from criminal prosecution or disciplinary proceedings. And finally, they stated, the principle of judicial independence meant that they had no duty to explain their deeds to anyone. The special commission of Supreme Court justices concluded that the communications between attorneys and judges constituted an ethical violation. At the same time, however the commission assured the public that Kitchen Justice was a reflection of days long gone, since the events depicted in the book most likely occurred between 1998 and 2000. Courts were under-financed then and lagged behind radical transformations in the society, and the ethical position of judges corresponded to the realities of that time.
This episode is a feature of the tumultuous nineties – an inevitable and painful component of the Baltics’ enormous transformation from its totalitarian past to a democratic society with independent court systems. The reputation of the court system in the Baltics continues to rise, with 63% of Estonians expressing trust in their courts, significantly above the EU’s average of 51%, and although Lithuania’s 43% and Latvia’s 37% is lower, trust in those courts is growing as well.
Twelve years on, the case of Kitchen Justice demonstrates how radical the reform of the judiciary in the region has been, in a compact period of time. The 2007 report of the investigative commission represents a snapshot of events in the court system ten years earlier. It exposed a lack of understanding of basic standards of professional conduct by many judges and lawyers. The common feature in the region in the last decade of the 20th century was the deconstruction of the heritage of fear and formal obedience imposed by totalitarian systems. In the new millennium judges and lawyers have become accustomed to a new paradigm – dealing with ethical dilemmas openly and with accountability.
The subsequent decade was a fast-forward learning experience. European integration brought synergies, with the development of international rules of professional ethics and deontology for judges and lawyers. An increasing number of cases with international dimension diminished the borders of different professional regulations and ethics guidelines between the former East and West.
In the third decade of the 21st century the legal profession is facing entirely new challenges. Judges and lawyers must now be well-versed in technological advancements, since the courts in the Baltic States are undergoing a digital transformation. Courts are moving to fully digitalize case contents and management, judges and lawyers can now openly discuss cases in professional networks and training sessions, and lawyers are required to share files digitally so that courts can use their reasoning for more efficient case management. With every step in the judicial process made accessible online, there is no chance to hide in ivory towers or secluded kitchens. Ironically, instead of alienating judges and lawyers, LegalTech has solved issues that concerned the legal profession and diminished the reputation of courts back in the days of Kitchen Justice.
By Lauris Liepa, Managing Partner, Cobalt Latvia