On 30 September constitutional changes went into effect that pave the way for the creation of independent, credible courts. The challenge is now to turn these constitutional provisions into reality. Already 1000 judges have resigned because they are unwilling to go through a competitive re-selection process. The new standards and selection procedures should be introduced with utmost urgency to avoid that a paralysis in the functioning of the legal system. These were the take-aways of the multi-stakeholder Public Forum “Citizen. Judge. How will the judicial reform affect us all?” that Democracy Reporting International and the OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine held on 17 October in Kyiv.
Judges and the courts are being given full independence, but the crucial question is how would they use it. Are they in fact ready, or will they be properly qualified and prepared for the task? Leonid Yemets, the deputy head of the parliamentary Committee on Legal Policy and Justice noted that the parliament has relinquished all its political controls over the judiciary and in two years’ time so would the president. A member of the High Qualification Commission for Judges, Stanislav Shchotka added that now few oligarchs or politicians would still dare openly to get courts to rule in their favour and that the court system in Ukraine has never been as open and ready for dialogue with civil society. Others however suggested that many judges still resent public scrutiny and the new competitive selection procedures.
Participants pointed out that the response to the reform among judges and the legal profession has been contradictory: Openness of some of them on the one hand, while others, especially in the High Courts, paint themselves as victims of a witch hunt. Much will depend now on the political will to fully implement these reforms, including the application of transparent criteria in selecting new judges, such as skills, experience and qualities of character.
While the debate focused on the political, technical and psychological challenges of implementing the current reforms, participants stressed that their success depends on wider democratisation and modernisation, including decentralisation and revamping the entire legal system. This, as Ihor Benedysiuk, Chair of the High Council of Justice, pointed out, has to encompass the procurators office, the bar and the police as well. Furthermore, Valentyna Symonenko, Chair of the Council of Judges of Ukraine and Supreme Court Judge reminded participants that the country’s courts and judges need to be ensured not only the capacity and infrastructure to deliver effectively, but also access to more modern means of doing so, such as video conferencing and other forms of e-justice in courts.
The forum was opened by Ambassador Vaidotas Verba, OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine, the Chief of the Legal and Consular Section at the German Embassy Jens Kraus-Masse, and DRI’s Representative in Ukraine, Bohdan Nahajlo. They emphasised that an independent, fair and trusted legal system is the cornerstone of democratic checks and balances. The participants included representatives from the judiciary, parliament, the presidential administration, civil society and the media. Tele-bridges with Kharkiv, Odesa and Lviv also enabled regional centres to contribute. The Forum was divided into two sections, one looking at the judicial reform from the point of view of the judge, and the other from the perspective of the citizen.