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Court and ministry at war – again

ONGOING wage discrimination lawsuits being pursued by hundreds of Slovak judges have provoked yet another conflict between the Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry. The latest spat erupted after the Supreme Court plenum, convened by court president Štefan Harabin, recommended that he should not launch appeals against judges who win lawsuits against the court.

ONGOING wage discrimination lawsuits being pursued by hundreds of Slovak judges have provoked yet another conflict between the Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry. The latest spat erupted after the Supreme Court plenum, convened by court president Štefan Harabin, recommended that he should not launch appeals against judges who win lawsuits against the court.

The ministry as well as judges critical of the Supreme Court president have rejected the plenum statement as being at odds with the law. Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry has updated its statistics and found that the number of judges suing the state for wage discrimination is considerably higher than originally thought.



Supreme Court not to appeal



Harabin convened a plenary session of the court’s judges on January 10 to discuss the wage discrimination lawsuits filed by some of their own number. The judges who filed the lawsuits argued that they had been discriminated against as a result of the higher salaries paid to judges sitting on Slovakia’s former Special Court, established by a previous government to fight high-level corruption and organised crime.

The plenum agreed that Harabin should not appeal against the verdicts in cases where the lowest-instance court had ruled in favour of judges who felt discriminated against, but rather seek agreement with them in order not to increase the court’s outlay.

“The Supreme Court president should try to accommodate the suit through agreement with the Supreme Court judges without increasing the court’s outlay and without unnecessary delays,” Supreme Court spokesperson Michal Jurči wrote in a statement provided to The Slovak Spectator. The plenum also recommended that Harabin initiate the creation of a working group composed of MPs from the parliamentary constitutional affairs committee, the Judicial Council and the Supreme Court, which would be assigned to resolve the situation through legislation.



Harabin criticised



Critics of Harabin, including the Justice Ministry, have rejected the conclusions of the plenum.

“Agreement or conciliation is out of question,” Peter Bubla, spokesperson of the Justice Ministry, wrote in response to the plenum’s decision. He pointed out that several members of the Supreme Court’s plenum had themselves filed anti-discrimination claims and were therefore potentially biased.

According to the ministry, the plenum’s session was not held in line with the law.

“The statement of the plenum negates the substance of the Supreme Court as the highest judiciary instance, because it is a statement regarding ongoing lawsuits that can only become a subject of process at the Supreme Court,” Bubla wrote.

Harabin’s conduct prompted reactions from some fellow Supreme Court judges. Several judges who are also members of the initiative For Open Justice left the plenary session, saying that it was not lawful and that the Supreme Court president and plenum had exceeded their authority.

“The independence of the judiciary as an internationally recognised principle doesn’t allow any state body, apart from the acting court and the participants in the process, to take any motivated official stance towards the subject matter, because it would necessarily be understood as an unacceptable interference in the independence of the court,” the judges wrote in a statement provided to The Slovak Spectator by the initiative’s spokesperson, Katarína Javorčíková.



Hundreds of claimants



Hundreds of judges have filed wage discrimination lawsuits over the past four years, most of them following a Constitutional Court ruling in May 2009 which found that the Special Court had not been established in accordance with the country’s constitution, partly on the grounds that the position of judges in different courts was unequal.

The lawsuits stirred the already muddy waters of the Slovak judiciary in February 2010, when the first verdict in a wage-discrimination lawsuit, finding for a Trenčín Regional Court judge and awarding him €90,000 in damages, was handed down by another judge who was herself the plaintiff in a similar complaint. The Justice Ministry did not react at that time. The then-justice minister, Viera Petríková, herself had a wage-discrimination lawsuit pending which she had filed while previously working as a judge.

The current Justice Minister, Lucia Žitňanská, has criticised the wage-discrimination lawsuits.

“The Justice Ministry under my leadership is acting in this matter as a responsible legal representative of its client, that is the Slovak Republic and its citizens,” Žitňanská said, adding that the ministry is determined to use all possible means to defend the interests of the state.

The new leadership of the ministry has been collating information about the wage-discrimination lawsuits. According to Bubla, at least 702 judges have filed such a lawsuit according to the latest information, with total damages sought amounting to more than €70 million. The ministry is a defendant in about 200 of the lawsuits; the rest have been filed against other institutions such as the Slovak parliament or individual courts, such as the Supreme Court.

The Justice Ministry regards the lawsuits as unjustified and has asked the courts to dismiss them and to disqualify those judges who have filed similar lawsuits from ruling on any of the cases, Bubla wrote. The ministry has already filed a constitutional complaint to the Constitutional Court.

For Open Justice has not issued a statement on the wage-discrimination lawsuits, as they are ongoing and many of the initiative’s members could be required to rule on the cases. However, several judges from the initiative, whose members include critics of Harabin, have also filed wage discrimination lawsuits.


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