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Despite doubling of staff, Costa Rica’s judicial branch resolves far fewer cases than in 2000

April 23, 2015

The number of cases resolved by Costa Rican courts has declined precipitously over the past 13 years despite a doubling of judicial staff over the same time period, according to a new report from Costa Rica’s State of the Nation Program.

The “State of Justice” report also found that resolution of legal complaints is increasingly expensive for the country, in part becuase of the justice system’s large number of employees.

Per capita, the judicial branch has doubled its staff since 2000, from 120 employees for every 100,000 citizens to 238 employees for every 100,000 in 2013. This increase, however, did not translate into greater efficiency in terms of the number of cases prosecuted, the report found.

In fact, the justice system may be much less efficient now than it was at the start of the millenium.

In 2000, a total of 841 cases were resolved by a single court, meaning they ended without any appeals to higher courts. But that number dropped to 486 by 2013, according to the report.

Costa Rican judges issued an average of 958 sentences in 2000, but by 2012 that figure was just 143.

Also, the justice system began promoting alternative dispute resolution in 2000, but these mechanisms were only used in 1.3 percent of cases evaluated in the report.

The report was the first time the State of the Nation Program has evaluated the country’s justice system. The program is a collaboration between Costa Rica’s public universities and the government ombudsman’s office.

Supreme Court President Zarela Villanueva said justices acknowledge the “weakness in efficiency” highlighted by the report. But she said the increase in staff is justified by the growth of services offered, as well as new departments and facilities created in recent years to provide citizens with more effective service.

The report also highlighted the large number of legal complaints that never make it to court. That can be a good sign, State of Justice coordinator Evelyn Villareal explained.

In 2013 judicial offices received nearly 600,000 complaints, of which 65 percent were dismissed or archived, meaning they did not end in a trial or final ruling. In one of every three cases, a judge dismissed a complaint for lack of merit.

Of all criminal complaints filed in 2013, 32 percent were archived by the prosecution, meaning they couldn’t attribute a crime to any suspect. Another one-third of complaints were rejected because of weak evidence.

Only 15 percent of criminal complaints ended in a sentence, of which 8.7 percent resulted in conviction while the remaining 6.5 percent resulted in acquittal.

Villareal conceeded that the report didn’t reflect the full reality of Costa Rica’s justice system. (But) “it is a starting point for research in areas not previously investigated in the country,” she said.

The study is available on State of the Nation’s website (in Spanish).

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