27th Oct 2016

Hungarian judicial reform has 'loopholes'

  • Small details render Hungary's judicial reform proposals problematic, says the the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (Photo: Scott*)

Hungarian reform proposals designed to revamp controversial judiciary legislation contain loopholes.

Laws that forced senior Hungarian judges into early retirement drew a barrage of criticism from the European Commission as well as the Strasbourg-based human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe (CoE), last year.

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But while Budapest tabled legislation to repeal them in December, a rule in its latest proposals says the judges are not allowed to reassume any leadership positions.

“It’s a loophole if the intention is to replace the entire judicial leadership,” Andras Kadar, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee in Budapest, told this website on Tuesday (29 January).

The draft legislation is set for debate in the next few weeks but Kadar called the provision “dangerous because it means any judicial leader can be dismissed at a relatively low cost.”

The fundamental law that sparked the protest lowered the mandatory retirement age of judges to 62 from 70 in January 2012 and affected mostly senior judges with rank.

Hungary’s Constitutional Court found the mandatory retirement age unconstitutional in July and had them abolished.

The Venice Commission - an advisory body of the Council of Europe on constitutional matters – had also slammed the law, noting that it introduces “a unique system of judicial administration, which exists in no other European country.”

Another loophole was also introduced that props up the oversight powers of the President of the National Judicial Office (NJO), who is charge of court administration under the supervision of the National Judicial Council.

“The problem here is that the National Judicial Council is obliged to agree on its [own] budget with the president. So the NJO president has a say in the budget of the body that is there theoretically to control it,” said Kadar.

Meanwhile, Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the CoE, presented on Tuesday the results of extensive dialogues with top Hungarian officials.

The CoE chief told journalists that a number of important advances were made since the launch of discussions in March last year and that the NJO is now more accountable for his or her actions.

“The outcome of our dialogue with the Hungarian authorities will in effect mean fewer powers and more accountability for the President of the National Judicial Office,” said Jagland.

The watchdog says the NJO President can no longer be re-elected for a second term and must answer to queries made by MPs concerning his or her duties.

The National Judicial Council may now also issue an annual performance opinion on the NJO president's judicial appointments. The council would also have the power to veto the president's decisions.

But despite the advances, the NJO president is still entitled to move cases from one court to another, a provision previously condemned by the Venice Commission, pointed out Kadar.

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