Don’t fall asleep in court

Publicerat 16 Jan, 2006

A lay judge is supposed to represent the people and reflect the structure of society as a whole. This is not the case today. Immigrants and young people are poorly represented.
”The least we can ask is that the lay judges should not fall asleep during the court proceedings,“ says prosecutor Katarina Lenter.
Politicians do not want lay judges who have a criminal record or are too keen on hash, nor those who are professed racists.

“A lay judge should be a person with a clean criminal record,” says Leif Björnlod, a Member of Parliament for the Green Party.
“In Värmland, however, we did have to remove a lay judge who was a little too keen on hash.”

Håkan Jevrell, a former prosecutor, works with legal issues for the Moderate Party. He also feels that the formal requirements should be tightened up. To become a lay judge you must be of age, be registered in the county concerned and be a Swedish citizen.
“But we don’t want lay judges who are professed racists.”

Berndt-Ola Lundström, Chairperson of the National Association of Lay Judges, says that the low level of remuneration is one of the reasons why so few young people choose to become lay judges.
“The post does not carry pension rights like other, regular forms of work. Some people are prevented from carrying out their assignments as lay judges by their employers – they are not given time off.”
As things are now, most people lose out financially by working as lay judges as they are only paid SEK 300 per day before tax. He also points out the importance of diversity in the group of lay judges; otherwise there is a risk that they will not understand the social and cultural backgrounds of the accused. 
At the moment, we need people who are under 40 years of age, and most of the present lay judges have a background in the public sector,” says Berndt-Ola Lundström.

Lay judges are elected in the respective municipalities or county councils following nominations from the political parties, where the nominees are usually already active. They have the same powers and swear the same oath as judges with a professional legal background. In court, they sit alongside the judge. In order to get as good a mix in the group as possible, it has now been proposed that there should be a free quota of 20 per cent who are not politically active, and that no one should lose out financially by accepting an assignment as a lay judge. This is in line with the report of the Committee on Lay Judges, “The Lay Judges of the Future” (SOU 2002:61). 

There is disagreement, however, about the free quota. Mats Einarsson, a Member of Parliament for the Left Party, is sceptical. He does not believe that it will increase diversity, and he underlines the importance of municipal self-government, which should not be regulated by the State. On the other hand, he has no idea how more young people and immigrants can be recruited as lay judges.
“There is nothing to prevent a political party from nominating people who are not politically active,” says Mats Einarsson.

All of the parliamentary parties claim that they want to increase diversity, but none of them seems to know how – there are no diversity plans relating to lay judges. In the current group of 7 579 lay judges, the average age is 57.06 according to the National Courts Administration. On the other hand, there are no statistics on ethnic background. The government-appointed Committee on Lay Judges conducted a limited survey that was answered by 138 lay judges. 7.2 per cent of these were not from Swedish backgrounds, and 3.6 of these were from countries outside the Nordic region. The Umbrella Project performed a rough division between the lay judges by sorting out those with names that did not sound Nordic. This gave a group that amounted to approximately 8 per cent of the total.

Håkan Jevrell of the Moderate Party is positive to the idea of a free quota, but believes that the nature of the post scares off a lot of young people. He points out that they first have to learn what it is all about, then they have to become involved in a political party and, finally, they have to gain the confidence and trust of this party. Immigrants who are accused of a crime might have more faith in the legal system if there were more lay judges with an immigrant background in the courts, and the risk of them feeling that they were being sentenced as “immigrant criminals” might decline.

Måns Wigén, a legal expert at the Ministry of Justice, says that the National Courts Administration has overall responsibility for reaching potential members of the free quota by advertising.
“According to the proposal, the National Courts Administration, the municipalities and the county councils should co-operate. Hopefully, diversity will increase as a result of the free quota,” he says.

The Green Party, the Moderate Party, the Centre Party and the Christian Democratic Party are positive to the free-quota proposal. The Liberal Party has not taken a position on the issue and refers instead to the individual municipalities. 
All of those who the Umbrella Project spoke to agreed that the level of remuneration must be increased in order to make the job more attractive. The Social Democratic Party did not want to comment on the issue at all as the drafting process was still in progress, but said that the party supports the Committee’s report.

Will there be at change in the law which will introduce a free quota, increase remuneration and change the formal requirements? Well, this is still uncertain. It is possible that parliament will decide on this after the summer of 2005.

Laura Patnaik,

  Helena Sidenvall

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