Eduardo Vargas made a big decision.
In November 2006, he sued the Costa Rican government to demand access ramps for citizens with reduced mobility. He filed the suit because he wanted to enjoy the diverse offerings of Costa Rican museums without having to request help to handle his wheelchair.
A few months later, in March 2007, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) decided he was right and ordered the Ministry of Culture to build the appropriate infrastructure to facilitate access for people with disabilities in all museums under its control.
The court ruling left Vargas feeling protected and empowered.
But as the years went by, he began to realize that what had been an important legal victory was in reality just another unenforced verdict filed away in a cabinet. The access ramps he needed were never built, and Vargas says he has grown tired of the excuses he receives when he asks why. So he gave up.
Vargas’ case is just one of many examples tainting the nearly sacred image of a highly respected Sala IV. An unflattering truth has begun to emerge: more than half of Sala IV’s rulings are not enforced.
From October 2009 to October 2010, only 931 sentences out of 2, 355 were implemented, resulting in a dismal compliance rate of only 39.5 percent. That means that beyond the numerical data, citizens seeking protection from abuses of power receive prompt assistance, but ineffective justice.
Ironically, the central government is at the top of the delinquency list. Central government agencies have accumulated a 75 percent delinquency rate for enforcement of Sala IV rulings. The top violator is the Public Education Ministry, whose workers filed 1,868 claims against several laws and regulations during a 12-month monitoring period. Education authorities enforced just 198 court rulings, a mere 10.6 percent.
The data on the lack of enforcement of Sala IV rulings was published by the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, a department within the Sala IV that is in charge of archiving and analyzing sentences.
Surprisingly, Constitutional Chamber magistrates don’t find the numbers alarming.
“If you remove the Public Education Ministry numbers, you will find that compliance rates are actually high,” says Sala IV President Ana Virginia Calzada.
“Sometimes decisions made by [education] ministry officials affect many workers, who file several lawsuits against the same action. Unfortunately those cases must be included in the total statistics,” she said.
But budget shortages may also be to blame for a lack of enforcement of judges’ rulings. Sala IV judges have no money to hire specialized judges and assistants to play the role as executors of the rulings.
This year the Legislative Assembly will debate a bill that seeks to overhaul the Constitutional Court. These changes include the possibility of adding more staff, which would be responsible for following up on cases and making sure the rulings are enforced.
Under current law, the Cons-ti-tutional Jurisprudence Act require magistrates to asses, review, rule and enforce their sentences, a nearly impossible task, says Calzada.
If the modifying bill is passed, Costa Rica would be one of the few countries in the world affording specialized judges in their constitutional chambers.
However, the lack of personnel is not the only reason why some authorities ignore the court orders. Frustrated plaintiffs do not demand that rulings are implemented, and they abandon the cases.
“It is difficult even for us to talk to government agencies and ask them what’s being done to implement our orders. We rely on citizens to let us know what has happened with their cases,” Calzada said. Effective justice, she insists, is a shared responsibility among authorities and citizens.
But what if the authorities (who are the defendants) still refuse to comply with court rulings?
Costa Rican law states that failure to abide by a Sala IV ruling will result in punishment of up to two years in prison, plus civil sanctions.
In the case of government agencies, some other measures might add an extra bit of pressure.
“We have the power to freeze budgets, we have done that in the past with a few municipalities. We reach an agreement with the Comptroller’s Office and all financial resources are frozen until resolutions are implemented. But again, it would be impossible to follow up on all these cases,” explains Calzada.
“When the judiciary branch losses credibility, one of the consequences is that people take justice into their own hands,” says Jorge Vargas Cullel, deputy director of the State of the Nation, the organization that helped the Sala IV track compliance rates.
“We’re not panicking yet. This information will help us understand what challenges await us as a society,” Cullel said. “The good news is that we are a step ahead of other countries that don’t have a methodology to measure the effectiveness of their constitutional chambers. At this point, no country has a 100 percent compliance rate. Of course, that’s no excuse to tolerate neglect from authorities. It’s not acceptable to ignore an order from the Sala IV.”
In March 2007, Resolution 2007-03777 issued by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ordered María Elena Carballo, former minister of culture, to build accessibility ramps in all the museums under her authority. The sentence warned Carballo that she could face jail time if the order was not obeyed.
However, the verdict was never fully implemented and almost four years later, Eduardo Vargas, the plaintiff, says he was fooled. The Tico Times recently spoke with Vargas. Excerpts follow:
Why did you decide to file the suit?
I started using a wheelchair in 1999 and after a few years I filed the lawsuit because I felt really uncomfortable whenever I wanted to go a museum and had to ask for other people’s help. One day I found out by reading the newspapers that I had won the case. I was happy and even congratulated myself.
How do you feel four years later?
It is absurd, I feel frustrated because this is an order from Sala IV, and nobody seems to care about it. I lost faith. If I had the authorities in front of me I would tell them, ‘You know what? Take this chair and try to enter a museum without any help.’
Authorities usually say they don’t have enough money to comply with the rulings…
It is unfair to say the government has no money or the authorities have no time. In my opinion, if there is a law, people should abide by it.
A few museums tried to implement better accessibility on their own…
In the Children’s Museum they built one dangerous mobile ramp that is put in place and removed at their discretion. If I want to go to someone’s office to talk, I can’t. They have to come downstairs. To me, that hurts.