General principles of judicial proceedings and the structure of the judicial system

The fundamental rights and freedoms of persons provided for in the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia also include rights relating to judicial proceedings. Pursuant to the Constitution, everyone whose rights and freedoms are violated has the right of recourse to the courts and the right, while his or her case is before the court, to petition for any relevant legislation or procedure to be declared unconstitutional. The Constitution prohibits the transfer of a person, against his or her free will, from the jurisdiction of the court specified by law to the jurisdiction of another court. Everyone has the right to be tried in his or her presence and the right of appeal to a higher court against the judgment in his or her case pursuant to procedure provided by law.

Court sessions are public. However, a court may, in certain cases and pursuant to procedure provided by law, declare that a session or a part thereof be held in camera, either to protect a state or business secret or the morals or private and family life of a person, or where the interests of a minor, a victim, or justice so require. Court judgments are made public unless the interests of a minor, a spouse or a victim require otherwise.

Pursuant to the Constitution, no one has the duty to prove his or her innocence in criminal proceedings and no one shall be compelled to testify against himself or herself, or against those closest to him or her.

The most significant of the principles of judicial proceedings provided for by law are the following:

  • everyone is entitled to legal aid in order to protect his or her rights and freedoms at all stages of judicial proceedings. Suspects, accused and accused at trial shall be ensured the right of defence in criminal proceedings;
  • a case shall be heard directly in a court of first instance — which means that the court shall directly examine the evidence (hear the statements of the participants in the proceedings and the testimonies of witnesses, examine expert opinions and documentary evidence, inspect physical evidence and conduct on-the-spot visits of inspection);
  • oral hearing of a case in a court session shall take place in a court of first instance;
  • in order to ensure continuity in the hearing of a case, the case shall be heard by the same panel of a court from beginning to end; if a judge or a lay judge is replaced during the hearing of a case, that case shall be re-heard from the beginning;
  • judicial proceedings shall be conducted in Estonian. Judicial proceedings may be conducted in another language if the court and the persons concerned are proficient in the language. Persons concerned who do not understand the language of the judicial proceedings shall be ensured the right to examine the records of the case and participate in the judicial proceedings through an interpreter or translator.

The courts and instances of the court of the Republic of Estonia are provided for in clause 148 of the Constitution. Pursuant thereto, the judicial system in Estonia has three instances. Although the Constitution provides for the possibility to create specialised courts for the adjudication of matters relating to narrower fields of civil, criminal or administrative law (e.g. for the resolution of labour disputes or tax disputes), no other courts have been created besides the courts provided for in clause 148 of the Constitution. The creation of emergency courts is prohibited in the same section (an emergency court is a court created for the adjudication of a certain specific case only. As opposed to an emergency court, a specialised court is a permanent court). Consequently, the organisation of Estonian courts may be considered fairly simple. Town courts no longer exist, despite the fact that they are mentioned in the constitution: after court reform, land courts are the courts of first jurisdiction in both criminal and civil cases. A district court or a court of appeals is the court of second jurisdiction, and the Supreme Court or a “cassation court” is the court of highest jurisdiction. In Estonia there are approximately 225 sitting judges.

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