Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Overwhelmed social courts make appointments for 2014

The Algeciras courthouse
PROV. OF CÁDIZ (Agencies) Spain's Social Courts (Juzgados de lo Social) are what in other countries would be called labour courts because they deal with employment matters (e.g. redundancies, union disputes with employers, demands for payment, Social Security and others). Whatever they may be called, the ones in the province are completely overwhelmed by the amount of cases arising principally from present employment circumstances, including officially recognized and unrecognized redundancy plans for a large number of companies. So much so that it is impossible to get a court date before January 2014. But it is not just a matter of statistics: to be made redundant means a sign-off payment from the employer and a trip to the unemployment office for the benefits, but what if the company is bankrupt and hasn't paid up your Social Security costs? That means that to get some money one has to go through the Social Court - in the meantime, what?>>>

There are seven such courts in the province: three in the capital, Cádiz, three in Jerez and only one in the Campo de Gibraltar, in Algeciras. On the face of it, that might seem enough, but statistics say differently.

According to the College of Social Graduates (a university degree that allows graduates to set up a gestoría, for instance), each one of those seven courts saw to one thousand cases each, that is 7,000 in the whole province. Nevertheless, the avalanche of cases arising from the disastrous employment situation in the province (traditionally the very worst in Spain, with almost 30% unemployment at present) means that cases are now being given court dates for the end of 2013 and in some cases, the beginnimngs of 2014. There are cases presented to court in 2009 and 2010 that have yet to be given a hearing date, according to José Blas Fernández, president of the College.

Data provided by the 2010 report of the Superior Court of Andalucía (Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Andalucía, known as TSJA) some 6,646 cases were dealt with last year at the seven courts. Of these, 2,437 were heard in Cádiz city, 1,223 in Algeciras, and 2,950 in Jerez. But some 7,505 were left pending, of which the vast majority, 4,166 belonged to Jerez.

The courts work by a 'modular' system, which gives an average of how many cases can bee seen each year at each court. By the TSJA's own reckoning, Social Courts can deal with 850 cases. Aside from Cádiz, with 936 cases (10.1% above average) and Jerez (884, or +4.1%) the most astounding figure is given for Algeciras, where courts -all of them, not just the 'social'- saw 1,652 cases each, or 94.4% above what they should have seen and certainly the highest percentage in Andalucía.

Therefore, and not before time, the TSJA has recommended a new judicial set up in the Campo de Gibraltar, as over the last five years Algeciras "has been overloaded by an average of 60%" according to the 2010 report.
But according to the President of the College, another severe problem is about FOGASA (Fondo de Garantía Social), which was set up to ease payment to workers if their employers were unable to come up with the money. This fund is 'blocked', according to José Blas Fernández, who describes the procedure: "If I'm fired, first I go to conciliación, after that to the demanda de despido, I wait to be called to court, I go to court, if the company does not appear it has to be summoned in the Official State Bulletin (Boletín Oficial del Estado, or BOE), a hearing takes place, a sentence is given, the sentence is executed; if the company no longer exists, FOGASA pays. So four or five years can easily go by before any money is received. This is a chaotic situation because the judges can't do any more."

On the other hand, Fernández also holds the opinion that Social Court judges need to be specialise, which at present they are not. To be a judge in Spain means making a career separate from that of lawyers or prosecutors. In other words, a simple lawyer at solicitor level cannot hope to become a judge unless he or she completes another seven years of university degree studies. Here's Fernández again: "Anybody can become a Social Court judge. For instance, I can be a judge in the Criminal Court but a vacancy pops up in the Social one and I can get sent there with no prior knowledge of the subject. That is very damaging." He proposes that there should be a level of support judges, as there was in the 1980s because of another financial crisis. Judges with good knowledge of the labour laws were sent in from Seville and Jerez as support. But they were specialists, if only temporary. "In any case," he says, "creating another court would not only be expensive but also underused when there is a lot less work. Of course, specialised staff is also needed: the courts can't just go to the unemployment office for their personnel, they have to know what they're doing from the very beginning."

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