In 1973, a group of landowners near Venice took the local government to court over a wall built on their property. Nearly fifty years later, the case is still unresolved and several of the original claimants have died.
“This case is very peculiar,” admits Flavio Tagliapietra, a lawyer working on the case, believed to be one of the longest-running in Italian history. Tagliapietra himself was only four years old when it first began.
The Venetian case is a particularly extreme example of an Italian problem that the national unity government of Mario Draghi has vowed to fix.
In fact, speeding up justice is a critical part of his government’s ambitious multiyear programme of national reform, which is being helped by more than €200bn in grants and loans from the EU.
Italy’s legal system is one of the EU’s slowest, and for decades has been blamed for hindering investment and growth in an economy that has barely grown in two decades.
Italian courts lag behind their peers in Europe in the amount of time they take to resolve commercial and civil legal disputes. According to the European Commission, the average Italian civil law case takes more than 500 days to be resolved in the first instance, versus an average of about 200 days in Germany, 300 in Spain or 450 in Greece.
Moreover, in Italy cases often go into a lengthy appeal process. That is what happened in the Venetian case. After Italy’s court of appeal ruled in favour of the landowners in 2017 it looked as if the matter was finally going to be settled. But then a higher Italian court overturned that decision; the case remains ongoing.
“In Italy we have a motto, taken from the Romans, that is: justice delayed is a denial of justice,” Marta Cartabia, Italy’s new justice minister told the Financial Times in an interview.
Cartabia, a former president of Italy’s constitutional court, was appointed by Draghi in February as part of the commitments Italy made to Brussels to receive the grants and loans for its recovery spending. Cartabia’s mission is to deliver on Draghi’s pledge of slashing the time that cases take.
“We are working on a number of reforms in Italy concerning the organisation and administration of justice,” she said. “But there is a common denominator: our goal is to reduce disposition times, and the lengths of cases in both criminal and civil law”.
Disposition is a legal term that refers to the final outcome of a prosecution. Cartabia’s ambitious goal is to reduce by a quarter within the next five years the time that criminal cases take to be heard, and to reduce civil disposition times by 40 per cent.
“Italy has got a sad record on this,” said Mitja Gialuz, a professor of criminal justice at Luiss University, referring to Italy’s lengthy legal process.
Gialuz also believes that a slow legal system encourages corruption, with white collar criminals able to spin out appeals over many years before facing a conviction that sticks. Statutes of limitations, which can kick in before appeals have ended, complicate things further.
“Fast criminal trials will ensure a more effective fight against corruption and organised crime, which both greatly penalise the Italian economy,” he said.
Yet Gialuz is optimistic that Cartabia and the Draghi government, which enjoys wide cross-party backing, can deliver on an issue that has proved deeply partisan in the past.
Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has faced a multitude of legal cases, some of which are still ongoing, repeatedly arguing these were politically motivated. A judicial system polarised along party lines is one result.
“Over the last 25 years it has been very hard to talk about justice reform in Italy due to ideological battles,” Gialuz said. “Now with a government led by Draghi we have a great opportunity.”
Cartabia said that a simple but critical way to speed up Italy’s courts would be to ramp up the recruitment of new judges, something the Draghi government has already begun.
“We have a very low rate of judges per population compared to other countries in Europe,” she said. “If you have a lower number of judges you can’t cope with the number of cases, this is obvious.”
Another step is to introduce the Italian equivalent of legal clerks into courts across the country, who will be tasked with assisting judges during cases. Remarkably, many judges in Italy work alone, meaning they must read every last document in a case without any help.
“This has not been in the Italian legal tradition, except in the constitutional court,” she said. “It is an old-style idea of a judge that works alone, reading every paper on their own.”
She said that these clerks would help reduce the caseload of individual judges, and give valuable and direct experience to a new generation of lawyers and judges who would witness the justice system close up from a young age.
“I was one of the clerks at the Constitutional Court when I was 28, that was a wonderful moment for me. It was a move from law in the books to law in action. It is another way to understand practising law.”
Legal reform may be less flashy than the multibillion-euro infrastructure spending projects planned by Draghi’s government, but its success may be more important for Italy’s future.
“If they can pull this off it will be one of the most important parts of the Draghi reforms,” said Nicola Nobile, an economist at Oxford Economics. “It is difficult to quantify the impact, but it will be a major step for the Italian economy.”