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JUSTICE MINISTER SEEKS MORE JUDICIAL REFORMS

Judges might be evaluated

CHANGES in how Slovakia’s judiciary operates will continue to be pursued by Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská. After she was successful in getting amendments to the laws governing judges and prosecutors’ offices passed by parliament, she announced in early July that she will seek to amend Slovakia’s constitution to assure that one person cannot simultaneously fill the position of Supreme Court president and the chair of the country’s Judicial Council, both currently held by Štefan Harabin. In addition she proposed that judges should receive regular evaluations of their work, conducted by three different evaluators.

CHANGES in how Slovakia’s judiciary operates will continue to be pursued by Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská. After she was successful in getting amendments to the laws governing judges and prosecutors’ offices passed by parliament, she announced in early July that she will seek to amend Slovakia’s constitution to assure that one person cannot simultaneously fill the position of Supreme Court president and the chair of the country’s Judicial Council, both currently held by Štefan Harabin. In addition she proposed that judges should receive regular evaluations of their work, conducted by three different evaluators.

The main opposition party in parliament already announced that the first proposal will not find support among its ranks and Harabin accused the justice minister of seeking personal revenge against him. But the idea of regular evaluations of judges may find smoother sailing in parliament.

Harabin may lose one post

When Slovakia’s Judicial Council elected then-justice minister Štefan Harabin to the post of Supreme Court president on June 22, 2009, it automatically also made him the head of the council, which oversees the operation of all courts in Slovakia. At that time several non-governmental organisations held protests in front of the Justice Ministry where the Judicial Council was meeting and the political parties in opposition joined the critical voices against Harabin’s selection. A year later the new government took power and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), which nominated Harabin to the justice ministry post, failed to make it back into parliament. The incoming government’s adopted programme statement featured several bold changes that it would seek in Slovakia’s judicial system.

The government pledged to amend rules so that a person would no longer be able to switch between posts in the judicial and executive branches without any intervening time. The four parties in the governing coalition also promised to exclude the heads and deputy heads of courts from holding posts in the judiciary’s self-governing bodies and proposed to end having the same individual at the top of the Judicial Council and the Supreme Court by pursuing “a constitutional proposal for the Supreme Court president not to be the chair of the Judicial Council”.

Minister Žitňanská has now proposed that change a year later as well as that votes taken by members of the Judicial Council must be publicly recorded and a requirement that it publishes materials about items it discusses.

“If the Judicial Council is to have any sense, these positions need to be separated,” the minister said, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

The separation of the two posts currently held by Harabin will require an amendment to Slovakia’s constitution and it currently does not seem likely that the minister can find the 90 votes need in parliament to pass the constitutional amendment.

MP Robert Madej, who serves as shadow justice minister for the opposition Smer party, whose MPs’ votes are needed to capture those 90 votes, has said that his party will not support the amendment and believes it is a further politicisation of the judiciary.

“It’s a fight against one person in the judiciary, which again betrays the coalition’s frustration over Mr Harabin,” Madej said, as quoted by SITA. He also stated that the current system of the Supreme Court president also heading the Judicial Council was introduced and promoted by the first government of Mikuláš Dzurinda from the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) in 2001.

Harabin reacted that he regarded Žitňanská’s proposal as personal revenge against him.

“It’s no reform, just personal political purges which result in prolonging judicial procedures,” Harabin stated, as quoted by the TASR newswire.

Grades for judges

The proposed evaluation system for judges is a change that might have a chance of passing parliament since many persons inside and outside of government and the judiciary consider the current system as non-functional.

“If judges want an individual approach to their work and if we want to do away with the simplification that an error of an individual judge is an error of all judges then we need to give the evaluation system real content and make the results accessible to the public,” Žitňanská stated in describing her proposal.

The Justice Ministry proposal would require evaluation of a judge every five years, with the judge receiving one of three grades: excellent, good, or fail. Receiving the ‘fail’ grade would be regarded a disciplinary offence. If a judge gets a failing grade three times, consecutively or otherwise, he or she will be dismissed from the bench.

Judges will receive points from three different evaluators: an evaluation committee created by the Judicial Council to evaluate the judge’s fluency and dignity in leading court proceedings; by the president of the college of judges who will evaluate statements of appellate courts and the judge’s compliance with judicial ethics; and the judge’s court president who will primarily evaluate primarily whether there have been unnecessary delays or procrastination. If a judge does not agree with the latter person’s evaluation, he or she can turn to the Judicial Council to check the accuracy of the evaluation.

Slovak judges appear to be split over the proposed evaluation system. While judges who are part of the For Open Justice initiative have said they agree with the proposal, the Association of Judges of Slovakia has stated its opposition.

“There are judges among us who for a long time have been professionally proving that they should be excluded,” Judge Katarina Javorčíková from the For Open Justice initiative told the Sme daily.

But Judge Dana Bystrianska from the Association of Judges of Slovakia fears that the evaluation system could be abused by superiors, noting that judges are facing a work overload.

“They have more duties than their human powers are fit to bear,” Bystrianska told Sme.

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