Traditionally, the judicial function has been carried out by five levels of tribunals. The parochial judge, the political lieutenant appointed by the president to supervise the affairs of the parish, handles only minor civil cases. Cantonal courts, at least one in each canton, try minor civil and criminal actions. Provincial courts handle all but a few of the criminal cases and the more serious civil and commercial suits. Superior courts handle appeals from the lower courts and have other administrative duties in the district; they may try original cases only if these relate to the affairs of their district. The Supreme Court has 31 justices and three alternates chosen by the National Chamber of Representatives for six-year periods.
Although citizens are afforded a wide range of freedoms and individual rights, there remain some shortcomings in the functioning of the judicial system, which is susceptible to political pressure. Police officers are tried only in closed session before police courts so that convictions for abuse or other violations are rare. Despite laws restricting arbitrary arrest and detention, such violations continue to occur in practice. Modernization of the court system began in 1993. In 1998, a new Judicial Council, with the power to administer the court system and discipline judges, began operations. In November of that year, the council's disciplinary committee fired two judges and two court employees for improperly releasing suspected drug traffickers. Because Ecuadorians continued to distrust the judicial system, reports of citizens taking the law into the own hands by lynching or burning criminal suspects continued into the year 2000.