Council of Europe adds to Hungary’s predicament

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The Venice Commission, a Council of Europe body specialised in constitutional matters, found yesterday (19 March) "numerous problematic elements" in the laws regulating Hungary's judicial system and even called for amending the country's new constitution. 

The development is expected to play an important role for the decision of the European Commission, which is currently considering a treaty violation procedure against Hungary in relation to the independence of its judiciary (see background).

On 20-21 February 2012, two separate delegations of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe body on constitutional matters, visited Budapest. One of them examined the new legislation relating to the legal status and remuneration of judges and to the organisation and administration of courts, and the second one a newly adopted Hungarian law (Act) on religious freedoms.

The adoption of the Fundamental Law and even more so the adoption of the Act on the Legal Status and Remuneration of Judges (ALSRJ) and the Act on the Organisation and Administration of Courts of Hungary (AOAC) as well as the Transitional provisions of the Fundamental Law have brought about a radical change of the judicial system, the experts concluded.

"Even if it might be possible to justify some of the [newly introduced] elements in the framework of the Hungarian tradition, the reform as a whole threatens the independence of the judiciary. It introduces a unique system of judicial administration, which exists in no other European country," the Venice Commission stated.

The Strasbourg-based institution enumerated a long list of concerns: The election of the President of the National Judicial Office (NJO) for a nine year period (which can be indefinitely extended by a blocking majority of one third of members of Parliament), the very extensive list of competences of the NJO President, his strong influence on the appointment of court presidents and other senior judges, the possibilities to transfer judges against their will and the harsh consequences of a refusal, the regulation on early retirement of judges, etc.

"The Commission concludes that the essential elements of the reform – if they remained unchanged – not only contradict European standards for the organisation of the judiciary, especially its independence, but are also problematic as concerns the right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

More importantly, the Venice Commission takes the view that the new Hungarian Constitution should be amended "where necessary".

Up to now, the Hungarian authorities have shown some degree of flexibility as to amending some laws, but not the newly adopted Fundamental law.

"The Commission remains of the opinion that basic tenets of the independence of the judiciary including strong checks and balances should be regulated in the Constitution itself and that the Fundamental Law should be amended accordingly," the Venice Commission stated.

Hungarians voted overwhelmingly in April 2010 for a radical change in leadership, sending the ruling Socialists into opposition and giving the centre-right a qualified majority in parliament.

The election marked the biggest victory for any political party in a general election since the fall of communism 21 years earlier. However, several measures put in place by the new government have since fuelled controversy.

A controversial new constitution that entered into force on 1 January brought tens of thousands of protestors. They believe it undermines the independence of the central bank, the judiciary and the news media.

On 7 March, the European Commission has opened the second stage of two infringement procedures against Hungary for government interference in the judiciary and in the data protection authority. The next step could be a referral to the European Court of Justice.

The decision appears as another blow to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who was slammed two weeks earlier with the threat to lose part of his country's regional funding for failing to correct its excessive deficit.

In the meantime, the war of words between Orbán and the European Commission escalated.

  • 21 March: The Secretary General of the Council of the Council of Europe, Mr Jagland, will visit Budapest to discuss these two opinions – and a new report on media freedom that has been prepared by media freedom experts at the Council of Europe.
  • 7 April: Deadline for Hungary to respond to the Commission's two "reasoned opinions" and two "administrative letters".

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