Prior to 18 November the judicial system of the Russian Empire with the Court Chamber and the Governing Senate in Petersburg functioned within the territory of Latvia. Following the proclamation of independence the new state had to organize its own legal system. The diplomatic struggle to gain the international recognition of the new state and reorganization of the national armed forces were important, however, the reform of the court system was no less significant. Peteris Jurasevskis, the first Minister for Justice, and his deputy Eduards Strautnieks immediately began negotiations about establishing courts and basic legislation concerning the judiciary.
On 6 December 1918 the People’s Council of Latvia passed “The Provisional Regulation on Courts and Judicial Proceedings in Latvia”, which defined the judicial system of the new state, consisting of magistrate courts, regional court, the Court Chamber and the Senate of Latvia. The Senate of Latvia was pronounced the cassation instance for all cases; it was to hear cases collegially and included three departments – the Department of Civil Cassation, the Department of Criminal Cassation and the Administrative Department. The Assembly was the common institution for all departments.
The Supreme Disciplinary Court also functioned as part of the Senate, three senators and two members of the Court Chamber were elected to it for one year’s term. The Head Prosecutor with deputies was also functioning under the Senate.
The Senators were appointed by the Provisional Government, later by the People’s Council and the Saeima, from the candidates recommended by the Ministry of Justice.
Already on the following day after the provisional regulation was adopted, on 7 December 1918, the Provisional Government appointed the first senators – sworn advocates Jānis Graudiņš and Kristaps Valters, 19 December 1918, when Kārlis Ozoliņš, Voldemārs Zāmuels, Miķelis Gobiņš, Pauls Mincs and Reisners were appointed, is considered to be the day of the foundation of the Senate. The two latter in fact did not serve as senators, they were replaced by Augusts Lēbers.
When the provisional Government was forced to leave Riga when it was occupied by Bolshevik forces, the Senate ceased activity, resuming its work on 15 July 1919 when the Government returned to Riga. This was the time when the true organizational work started for courts. The first journal of the Senate’s steering meeting was drawn on 10 September 1919. During this sitting the article by the Minister of Justice was read out, announcing the appointment of six senators by the People’s Council on 5 September. On 23 September the Cabinet of Ministers appointed Voldemārs Zāmuels as the first head prosecutor of the Senate.
At the beginning the senators were elected for each department sitting, since the number of senators was insufficient for establishing a permanent structure. Only during the assembly of 2 October 1919 the Senate elected chairs of the Departments and allocated the senators to Departments. Since there were only 6 senators, a chair and one permanent member were elected to each Department, and one temporary member, who simultaneously served as a permanent member of another Department.
During the first year the Senate was mostly involved with organizational, legal and administrative matters, and did not review cassation appeals. The senators elaborated and submitted to the Ministry of justice a number of draft laws: The fundamental rules of the Latvian Senate; Instructions to Latvian courts; Regulations in guardianship cases; The law on the introductory section of opinions of Latvian courts; Instructions on the use of the German and Russian languages in Latvian courts.
Initially the position of the Chair of the Assembly was taken up by the Chair of the Department, which had referred the case or to which the issue under discussion pertained. On 3 June 1920 Kristaps Valters, the Chair of the Administrative Department, was elected permanent Chairperson for “chairing joint assignments sittings and court hearings”. Simultaneously he continued to chair the Administrative Department and participate as a Senator in the hearing of cases.