Courts of first instance and courts of appeal

In the first instance of the judicial system, justice is administered by county, city and administrative courts. At present, there are altogether 16 county and city courts and 4 administrative courts with 174 judges in Estonia.

The resolution of administrative disputes in the first instance was assigned to four administrative courts located in Tallinn, Tartu, Pärnu and Jõhvi. The hearing of matters concerning administrative offences, on the other hand, was placed in the jurisdiction of county and city courts, for such matters are, by nature, more similar to criminal offences than to the so-called “real administrative matters”. The reform also allows for a decrease in the number of administrative court judges in favour of general judges (the posts of administrative court judges at county and city courts will be abolished), thereby equalising the workload of both branches of the court system. The remaining administrative court judges will, however, still be able to devote themselves to the specifics of administrative law.

Reform of the administrative court system was completed by the new Code of Administrative Court Procedure that entered into force on 1 January 2001. The objective of the reform was to raise the qualifications of administrative court judges, for which purpose the clear specialisation of administrative court judges in the adjudication of administrative matters was deemed a suitable measure. To this end, the functional jurisdiction of administrative courts was changed and greater separation of the administrative court system from the general court system prescribed in the first instance of the judicial system.

In county and city courts, judges adjudicate matters sitting alone, except in certain cases provided for by Acts concerning court procedure, where a court adjudicates matters collegially with the participation of one judge and two lay judges. Elected by the representative body of the local government, lay judges have the rights of a judge in the administration of justice. Their participation in all proceedings concerning criminal offences of the first degree is mandatory. Cases relating to membership in or formation of a criminal organisation, recruitment of members thereto, and leadership of such an organisation or a part thereof are adjudicated by a panel of three judges.

In addition to the administration of justice, several functions of executive power are assigned to county and city courts by law. Thus, land registers are maintained by land registries operating within the framework of county and city courts. Each county and city court also has its own registration department. This maintains registers of all commercial enterprises and non-profit associations and foundations within the territorial jurisdiction of the registration department. The making of entries in these registers is decided either by the chairman of the relevant county or city court or by a judge appointed by him or her. County and city courts also have probation supervision departments (under the system of probation supervision, a probation supervisor monitors a convicted offender who has been given a conditional sentence or released on parole, ensures that the offender performs the obligations imposed on him or her by a court judgment and tries to assist the offender in his or her social adjustment).

Administrative courts and administrative court reform
Administrative courts are separated from the general court system only in the first instance of the judicial system. Prior to 1 January 2001, the jurisdiction of administrative courts included so-called “real administrative matters” (e.g. complaints against the activities of administrative authorities in the fields of taxation, customs, the return of unlawfully expropriated property or other administrative activities by the authorities of executive power) as well as administrative offences (offences which are not criminal offences, the latter being listed separately under the Criminal Code). As far as organisation was concerned, there were separate administrative courts in Tallinn, Tartu and Pärnu. In other areas, administrative court judges acted at the corresponding county or city court. The lack of any clear division of functions between general judges and administrative court judges was characterised by the fact that, pursuant to the Courts Act, county and city judges could also hear matters belonging to the jurisdiction of administrative courts. Similarly, the same Act specified that the Supreme Court could appoint administrative court judges to hear cases belonging to the jurisdiction of county and city courts. Due to the relatively small number of so-called “real administrative matters”, administrative court judges at county and city courts often performed additional functions by adjudicating in civil and criminal matters. The fact that single administrative court judges also acted at county and city courts meant that they could not consult with colleagues on a daily basis or hear more complicated administrative matters as members of a panel of three judges, even though these functions were prescribed by the new Code of Administrative Court Procedure in certain cases (as a general rule, in administrative courts, administrative matters are adjudicated by a judge sitting alone).

County and city courts
County and city courts hear all civil and criminal matters. There are 14 county courts and 2 city courts in Estonia today. The jurisdiction of county and city courts differs only territorially: the territorial jurisdiction of courts of first instance is generally the county. Exceptionally, the territorial jurisdiction of two courts of first instance is the city where the court is located — thus there are city courts in Tallinn and Narva.

Circuit courts
Courts of appeal are circuit courts which review the decisions of county, city and administrative courts by way of appeal proceedings. Today there are three circuit courts in Estonia — the circuit courts of Tallinn and Tartu, and Viru Circuit Court located in the city of Jõhvi. There are currently 45 judges working in circuit courts.

Circuit courts are divided into Chambers according to the cases heard. At least three judges participate in the hearing of cases by way of appeal proceedings in sessions of Chambers. The Supreme Court determines the division into Chambers, the number of judges in each Chamber and the judges and chairmen of the Chambers. Currently, Civil, Criminal and Administrative Chambers have been formed in the circuit courts of Tallinn and Tartu and Civil and Criminal Chambers in the Viru Circuit Court. Administrative matters falling within the jurisdiction of the Viru Circuit Court are reviewed by the Circuit Court of Tartu.

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