Italian Parliament Backs Judicial Reforms

The country’s courts are the slowest in Europe.

Palace of Justice Rome Italy
The Palace of Justice in Rome, Italy (Unsplash/Babak)

Mario Draghi isn’t wasting any time. The former European Central Bank chief became prime minister of Italy in February, announced his reform plans in April and got parliament’s approval for an overhaul of the justice system on Tuesday.

Italian courts are notoriously slow. Even routine proceedings like resolving bankruptcies can take years. It is one of the reasons startup activity is low, foreign investment is lacking and Italy is one of the worst countries in the developed world to do business in.

Draghi’s goal is to reduce the average length of criminal trials by a quarter and those of civil cases by 40 percent.

The reforms

  • If an initial appeal is not completed in two years, and the second appeal in one year, all cases except those punishable by a life sentence will expire without a verdict.
  • Judges can grant special dispensation for a trial to continue in cases of drug trafficking, organized crime, sexual violence and terrorism.
  • The statute of limitations will be frozen at the end of the first trial for most crimes.

Criminal appeals take 850 days on average in Italy against just over 100 days in the European Union as a whole.

Wealthy defendants pay lawyers (and in some cases judges) to draw out legal proceedings for many years. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is an example. The statute of limitations ran out before his corruption appeals made it through the courts.

The estimate is that half of future trials will end in the appeals stage.

  • Some 20,000 clerks will be hired, nearly doubling support staff.
  • The cost, €2.3 billion, will be paid from EU’s coronavirus recovery fund.

Many Italian judges work without staff altogether.

  • Electronic filing of procedural documents will become mandatory.

Many judges still work with pen and paper, but strides were made in digitalization during the pandemic.

  • Judges will be encouraged to mete out community services rather than prison sentences to reduce pressure on criminal courts.
  • Mediation will be required in many civil cases to reduce the burden on civil courts.

The average Italian civil law case takes more than 500 days to be resolved compared to 200 days in Germany, 300 in Spain and 450 in Greece.