The plight of Czech judges!

06-06-2001

By Dita Asiedu.

The Czech Republic is desperately calling for reform of the judiciary. Whilst the Czech public complains of slow trials and corruption, judges are saying that they have to work with below par legislation and - due to a critical shortage of courtrooms - have to work shifts and are very pressed for time. Many Czech judges say that proper judicial reform was curtailed before it was even begun, referring to changes proposed by former Minister of Justice, Otakar Motejl, which they say were not given a chance by the politicians. The current Minister of Justice, Jaroslav Bures, who has been in office for some four months, has proposed new legislation, which although now generally accepted by Czech politicians, has already been opposed by his fellow judges. The law says that every new judge will be tested for competence by a special committee sixty months after entering office. Failing the test could lead to suspension and even dismissal. In addition, the law would allow for the committee to assess any judge at any time, whenever the Ministry of Justice sees fit. Dr. Jan Vyklicky is a judge, and currently heads the Prague 10 District Court. He believes that the new proposals will seriously limit a judge's independence. "The proposals are based on good intentions: to increase the quality, efficiency, and speed of the judiciary, so ethics play an important role. But the plans were written up in completely the wrong way. The quality of the system is meant to be improved by a council that monitors the expertise of judges. But some members of this council are to be chosen from social groups that don't exactly have good relations with judges, and are sometimes even in direct conflict with them. I can't say it's good that judges are to be supervised by lawyers or the state prosecution council. This wouldn't increase quality but would rather lead to the intimidation of the judiciary."

Minister Bures, however, says that new judges are only familiar with theoretical aspects of the law and need to be tested on their practical competence. Furthermore, as far as interference with a judge's independence is concerned, the Minister dismisses the assessment, saying that independence affects their judgement in the courtroom and not their education and expertise. Judges, in return, say that anyone who is tried in the 60 month trial period could have doubts about the fairness of the trial, and if a judge should then fail the test, doubt would be cast upon all his pasts verdicts. Even worse, in political cases, a judge may be more likely to favour the government in order to stay in the ministry's good books. Judge Vyklicky, is one of many judges who believes that a primary problem is the fact that, under current legislation, a judge's career is in the hands of the Ministry of Justice:

"It's the Minister of Justice and no-one else who decides right from the start of a judge's career where the judge will serve, whether, when, and where he will be transferred or promoted ... he decides exclusively who's going to head the court as well as who will not. That's a lot of influence because he chooses a head who has power over the rest of the judges."

So how does it work in other countries in Central Europe? Mr. Lech Falandysz is a prominent lawyer and professor of law at the University of Warsaw. Earlier, I asked him to tells us what the situation's like in Poland:

So, in Poland, the situation seems quite the opposite. There, as well as in Hungary, the Ministry of Justice can legally interfere little in a judge's career. Imer Helyes is from the office of the National Council of Justice in Hungary:

But in Poland, as Mr. Falandysz says, the Minister of Justice has found other ways to compensate for limited power over judges:

Czech judges believe that the current judicial law is sufficient testing as it does new judges with the entrance exam. This not only includes testing of their expertise but also of their psychological state. Furthermore, they say that when a judge fails to respect the code of ethics, the pressure from fellow-judges is so powerful that it often results in resignation. In Poland, as Mr. Falandysz tells us, it is quite difficult to force a judge into resignation because he enjoys immunity..

Out of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, it appears that the latter has the most fair system. Mr. Helyes explains:

The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary are three of the six front-runner candidates for EU membership. One area of reform that all three countries know is imperative in order to meet EU requirements is that of the judiciary, and whilst it looks like Poland and Hungary are on the right track, the Czech Republic seems to be lagging behind in its preparations. The law proposed by the Czech Justice Minister has already been approved by the government and is now being discussed by parliament. If it is passed, though, it is quite likely that opposition from Czech judges could result in wide-ranging amendments.

06-06-2001