El Salvador's Judiciary Pressed To Reform

AS El Salvador emerges from 12 years of war, the country's judicial system, notorious for corruption and inefficiency, has become a focus of reform efforts.

Many experts now question whether the system can mete out even-handed justice in times of peace.

Constitutional and judicial reforms negotiated as part of the United Nations-mediated peace process in El Salvador may help professionalize the judiciary, but few expect the changes to come quickly.

Practically every lawyer in El Salvador can cite a case that looked clear-cut until the judge mysteriously ruled against the plaintiff.

Consequently, the law is held in low esteem by most Salvadorans. "The truth is, the law doesn't work," is heard often on the streets of the capital.

Some lawyers say judges can be bought off by a sacador, an attorney who accepts money from his clients to bribe a judge to rule in a certain way, perhaps even springing a criminal from jail.

Felix Ulloa, who heads the Institute of Judicial Studies of El Salvador, an opposition think-tank on the judiciary, says some judges could have two or three sacadors. But he points out that bribing one of the lower functionaries in a judge's office also can influence the outcome of a case.

In the overworked system, he says, all sides admit that judges often sign documents without knowing their contents.

But senior judges, lawyers, and analysts say the system is beset by poor training of court personnel, lack of legal and financial resources, and political meddling - problems requiring long-range solutions such as eradicating illiteracy, increasing salaries, and computerizing court documents.

A 1990 government-sponsored report on El Salvador's legal system found that "the state is not complying with its obligation to impart fast and reliable justice, and consequently there cannot be social peace." The report impugns the system for being slow, unfair, arbitrary, and corrupt.

Judges, lawyers, and analysts say little has changed since the report was written.

Supreme Court Magistrate Oscar Rodriguez says a key cause of corruption is low salaries. Although the Supreme Court has doubled salaries this year, low-tier judges still only receive between $300 and $500 a month.

Last year, court authorities dismissed 30 judges for corruption or negligence, just over 6 percent of the total number of judges working in the system.

"We haven't given it much publicity because we think that would be to add ignominy to their public punishment," says Dr. Rodriguez with a smile. "They are professionals after all."

But Jose Maria Mendez, one of the universally respected elders of the court system, criticizes the Supreme Court for not publicly sanctioning the dismissed judges and complains, "They should have dismissed a hundred more."

Judicial and constitutional reforms worked out as part of the UN peace pact have attempted to limit political intervention in the judiciary by making it more difficult for one political party to dominate the National Judicial Council, which selects judges. The peace talks also spawned an agreement to increase state expenditure on the judiciary. This year the Supreme Court will draw around $23 million from the national budget. That figure should nearly double by the end of 1995, court authorities say.

Apart from providing for higher salaries, the budget increase has also allowed the judiciary to begin computerizing thousands of documents on legislation and jurisprudence dating back to 1824.

As part of the $1.5 million plan, thousands of current cases will also go into the computer to speed up processing and give anyone who can operate a computer access to court documents.

Other projects instituted in the last two years include building new courthouses, forging links with universities, creating a forensic-science laboratory, and putting judicial teams into penitentiaries to address the common problem of criminals imprisoned for years without being charged.

Mr. Ulloa commends the Supreme Court for its work to improve the system but claims the changes are superficial. He says the problem is rooted in Salvadorans' disrespect for public law.

He adds that eradicating illiteracy should be a priority, so that people can understand the laws. The United States Agency for International Development estimates that illiteracy ranges from 40 percent in cities to 80 percent in the countryside.

"Our generation isn't going to resolve the problem and possibly not the next generation," Ulloa says. "But we have to lay the foundations so that new generations can pull themselves out of this problem."

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