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My Home Sweet Rome - Dreaming of Judge Giuditta (Judy)

Sari Gilbert

 

Over the years, I have covered a lot of Italian criminal cases: Mafia, political murders or kneecappings, papal assassination attempts and international conspiracies such as the so-called Bulgarian Connection that had the KGB behind the unsuccessful attempt to kill John Paul II. Some of these trials, admittedly, have been ludicrous, or at least ludicrous by our terms. Unconscionable delays, Mediterranean drama, flowing black robes (no wigs, fortunately) interminable delays, rules that by our standards seem odd. For instance, witnesses are required by law to swear to tell the whole truth, but defendants are not, that is they are allowed (expected) to lie.

More about this later, but my own personal experiences with the legal system have been very limited. I have never been charged with anything and until last week, my two experiences with the court system are: a suit I filed against my former newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore (I won the first round and am now waiting for next month's final hearing in the appeals trial my lawyer and I filed, since our initial victory was only partial); a suit filed by myself and my cleaner after he was seriously injured in a traffic accident when he was riding a motorbike owned by me. The accident was in December, 2009 and the final hearing (we will definitely win) was supposed to be last September but that day Italy's magistrates decided to hold a strike and the case was postponed until April 30, so we are now waiting with baited breath.

But now I have had another frustrating experience, which took place on April 16th when I went to the equivalent of small claims court – done here by the Giudice della Pace, the Justice of the Peace – for a hearing in my suit against a plumber who last summer cheated me out of €600. I filed the suit in February in the courthouse of a town called Montefiascone that has jurisdiction over Bolsena, the even smaller town where the evil deed occurred in August of last year. The judge who took my complaint was very nice, suggested it might be better if I had a lawyer (but, I said, if I had to pay a lawyer there was no point in filing the suit), wrote down my account of the case, took the papers I had on hand (correspondence between the evildoer and a lawyer friend who did not charge me), and set the hearing for 10:00am on Tuesday, April 16. Next I had to go see the court clerk, Giuliano, who sent me out to the tabaccheria to buy two €5.32 marche da bollo (these are government stamps often required for official documents) had me fill out some papers and told me I would have to go down the hall to the ufficiale giudiziario (a sort of bailiff) to pay a small fee so that an official notification would be sent to the party I was suing. As it was after 1pm, the office was closed. But the bailiff, Tonino, just happened in and (and this is Italy at its best) told me to come along anyway.

So all seemed to be well and good until, two weeks later, I mistakenly booked a ticket to London on April 16th. Once I realized my mistake, I called the office and they told me to write a letter to the judge to whom the case had been assigned (regrettably not the first one I had met but a woman who can only be described as a dried-out prune) asking for a postponement. She turned it down and so I gritted my teeth and paid €50 extra to change my flight to the following day.

Naturally, given this development, I imagined that the scheduled hearing was precisely that, my hearing. I was not feeling too worried about the outcome, not just because the case was fairly cut and dry, but because in the meantime the counterpart had refused to accept the notification which meant, my lawyer friend said, that he had renounced his right to defend himself.

So imagine my surprise when I showed up at 8:30am to file one more document and was sent to the tiny courtroom only to find it packed to the gills with at least 60 other people. At 10:00 (promptly) Giuliano came in with a stack of pink or blue folders (these fascicoli, pronounced fash-i-coli, are a fixture of any Italian court office) and read off the names, mine being third or fourth to last. "Oh no," I thought, "please don't let this be the order in which the cases will be taken!" But, instead, it was.

Italian Small Claims Court

What a bore! As far as I could tell, most of the people present were there to contest traffic fines of one sort or the other. But there was no way of telling for sure since there were so many people in the room that you could not even see the judge sitting at her desk in the forecourt, where there were also desks for lawyers. Every half hour or so, Giuliano would call out a series of names and those called would move from the back part of the room where there were five rows of seats to beyond the partition separating the area reserved for lawyers and, of course, the judge. They would huddle, standing, behind Giuliano's desk to the right of the judge, and wait to be called. Most cases did not take that long and as far as I could make out most people were being given a web address where they could look in the next few days to see how their cases had been adjudicated. Finally, next to last, my name was called (and seriously mispronounced) by the judge who then, however, decided she had to go make a phone call, leaving me standing in the forecourt with all my papers.

When she got back she lambasted me for not having a lawyer because it meant she had to take extra time to explain things to me (and this was weird because Italian law says I can, indeed, come before the Justice of the Peace without a lawyer), then added the additional papers I had brought to my fascicolo, and finally insisted (quite irregularly, my lawyer friend says) that I had to  notify the plumber a second time, and set a second hearing for 11am on July 16th.

So guess what I did last week, after my return from London? Yep. Back to Montefiascone from Rome, back to Giuliano, back to the tabaccheria for two more marche a bollo, back to the ufficiale giudiziario where, although it was again after 1pm, another bailiff (Tonino was on vacation) agreed to take the info and arrange for the notifica to be sent. All in all, a totally wasted morning and an inside look at the Italian justice system. But then again, what did I expect? Just last month, some research organization released a horrifying statistic. At the moment, in Italy, over 5 million civil cases are pending and unresolved.

All this, of course, has nothing or little to do with the penal court system which many non-Italians became really aware of during the first and second Amanda Knox trials. With a third trial coming up, watch this space for my views on some of the injustices committed both during the preceding trials and, equally, in the pages of the foreign press.


My Home Sweet Rome is a series of articles on Slow Travel.

Sari Gilbert, a journalist and author who lives in Rome and operates Live Rome Like a Roman vacation rental apartment and writes the Stranitalia blog.

© Sari Gilbert, 2013

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