Photo: Sofía Jaimes Borges

The Surprising Case of Venezuela: a Society Without a Justice System

What’s really extraordinary is that we aren’t more violent and that we solve some conflicts in a rational way, when we’re in a country where the justice system is out of reach or doesn’t work

The institutional decline that Venezuela has gone through for the last two decades has stopped the state from being functional anymore, and one of the ways in which the Venezuelan collapse manifests itself is in the absence of a real justice system. What was once a constant criticism to the Venezuelan political arena of the ‘80s, reached a level of severity where no one can seriously identify any important features of something that can be understood as a judicial system. 

This is particularly clear, for example, if we examine the performance of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) when the issue at hand involves the government. Lawyers Antonio Canova González, Luis A. Herrera Orellana, Rose E. Rodríguez Ortega and Guiseppe Graterol Stefanelli prove in this book how, from the statistical point of view, it’s practically impossible to beat the state in a dispute. Their conclusion reads: “The account of events, the qualitative analysis, and the revision of criteria by the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, prove that the Constitutional Court, the Political-Administrative Court, and the Electoral Court aren’t independent or impartial towards the national government. Moreover, this reality doesn’t stem from a mistake or system deficiency, but a deliberate consequence of its absolute politicization in 2004. They’re at the service of the national government. And they unconditionally support the authoritarian way, with a tendency towards absolute control and perpetuity, which said government exercises in Venezuela, in violation of democracy, the Law and human rights.”

For reasons that go from the minute salary scale in the Judicial Branch, to migration, going through hyperinflation or shortage of paper reams in the courtrooms, the truth is that regular citizens have no reason to go to court in order to solve any conflicts.

Any of the political events that have occurred in the last few years prove such conclusions: a Constitutional Court that backed an unconstitutional election for a National Constituent Assembly; an Electoral Court that hasn’t protected opposition political parties facing the attacks by the government; a Constitutional Court who has backed the political persecution of the National Assembly and opposition deputies. And a long et cetera.

But, alongside these issues, the collapse of the Venezuelan justice system has resulted in a lack of practical functionality in what could be called “ordinary justice,” those courtrooms meant to solve civil, commercial, labor, or penal disputes.

For reasons that go from the minute salary scale in the Judicial Branch, to migration, going through hyperinflation or shortage of paper reams in the courtrooms, the truth is that regular citizens have no reason to go to court in order to solve any conflicts.

For example, if a person loans money to someone else, and they sign papers attesting to said loan, it is virtually impossible for a judge to sentence the payment of the debt. The expenses paid for lawyers, along with the usual delays in the justice system, plus the financial incentives that the parties are forced to put forward (or accept) on many occasions, turn any legal dispute just to cash in a loan, into a real nightmare. With all certainty, the amount of money spent will be much higher than the original debt so, embarrassing as it may seem, it doesn’t make any sense to file a lawsuit to collect a debt because you’ll end up losing more money than what you already lost.

Another example: if an employee wants to sue their employer for a labor dispute, they’re going to have to buckle down a big sum and plenty of time to go to trial. Litigation can take years, while the debt vanishes under inflation. The employer has all the incentives to stretch the trial, until the employee gives up.

Criminal justice isn’t in a better position. The incentive system that supports criminal justice makes any judicial procedure cost a fortune. That’s why you can argue that pulling off a conviction over anyone that has committed a crime is practically impossible, or extremely expensive.

What’s more surprising about all this? From a sociological point of view, we’re out of a justice system to solve our differences. Today, Venezuela is a country in which anyone can break any civil, commercial, or labor contract without legal consequencewe’re a country where it’s statistically unlikely to be convicted of a crime. It’s incredible, I insist, that we haven’t become a more violent society, beyond the typical violence of common crime.

The pandemic has made this all much worse. Since the state of alarm was announced, the TSJ has suspended the activity in courtrooms, with a few exceptions: (i) urgent matters; (ii) injunctions that will be considered active as long as the suspension period continues; (iii) criminal courts and the public service for administration of justice on a national scale can continue only for urgent matters; (iv) the Constitutional and Electoral Courts of the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia will remain open during the state of contingency, and the Magistrates of the Main Court of the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia will maintain the quorum needed for deliberation during the state of alarm.

Criminal justice isn’t in a better position. The incentive system that supports criminal justice makes any judicial procedure cost a fortune.

Through the 03-2020 resolution on July 28th of 2020, four and a half months after the state of alarm was announced, the TSJ’s Civil Court established a pilot plan to begin online procedures concerning civil actions in the states of Aragua, Anzoátegui and Nueva Esparta, starting on July 29th, 2020, named “Virtual Office”. The rules for judicial procedures of a civil nature in these states are included in the resolution.

The reality is that it’s almost impossible to go to any court since March of this year, and the country isn’t even remotely prepared to have judicial proceedings through online platforms; we’ve “learned” how to live without a justice system to defend our rights and protect ourselves from others.

The personal and sociological consequences of this are very severe. Not just because of the injustices in themselves that are committed on a daily basis with no way to effectively complain, but because, as time goes by, we’re getting used to living in a country where no one can report an employer for not paying, where no one can hope to collect overdue debts, and where no one even thinks about suing for a car crash, just to mention less serious affairs.