Bulgaria: EU Commission's 2015 CVM Report in Brief

Bulgaria in EU | January 28, 2015, Wednesday // 17:39|  views

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The European Commission published on Wednesday, January 28, reports on Bulgaria and Romania under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) to summarize the two countries' progress in 2014 in areas such as judicial reform, fighting corruption and (in the case of Bulgaria) fighting organized crime. CVM reports are crucial for both countries' progress on their way to Schengen accession.

Below is a summary of the most important remarks and recommendations in the report for Bulgaria. 

On Tuesday, the first paragraph of the conclusion leaked into the media. It begins by pointing out that "since the Commission's last report in January 2014, progress in terms of addressing judicial reform and making concrete advances on corruption and organized crime has been slow.

The text begins by admitting "the political uncertainties of the past year in Bulgaria have not offered a stable platform for action." However it also adds that "the EU stands ready to support a renewed effort" of the government and Parliament to pursue reform.

Firstly focusing on reform progress in Bulgaria, it starts with criticism targeting the Supreme Judicial Council, the work of which "has continued to be subject to controversy, with several incidents in relation to appointments, dismissals or the control of the application by courts of the system of random allocation of cases.

A proposal to divide the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) into two parts, one for judges and one for prosecutors, is mentioned along with the details around its integration into the judicial reform strategy adopted by Parliament and by the government. No specific evaluation of the proposal is made here.

Another issue of concern is the failure to elect a President of the Supreme Court of Cassation (SCC) "despite the fact that candidates with good credentials had applied - with solid experience in the SCC itself - and amidst controversy over the voting system."

The election of a Chief Inspector at the Judicial Inspectorate "after a long vacancy of the position, was considered a test case by the January 2014 CVM report," the Commission reminds, adding no election has taken place and describing the procedure as "an important test case in 2015 of the ability of the Bulgarian institutions to carry out transparent and merit-based appointments to high-level offices in the judiciary."

The system of random allocation of cases is also on focus, with the Commission slamming at authorities for their failure to heed Brussels' calls to find a permanent solution to its vulnerabilities: "Specific shortcomings identified in a March 2013 audit of the Supreme Administrative Court and the Sofia City Court were not followed up. As a result, a series of scandals concerning case allocation in the Sofia City Court broke out in autumn 2014. These problems were not identified by the SJC - the issues had to be raised by outside actors." This is a reference to French Ambassador Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes and his comments, made for a TV station in December, that there are "rotten apples" in the judiciary and the example with a pending case which allegedly casts a shadow of doubt over the efficiency of Bulgaria's system for random allocation of cases.

"It seems likely that the reputation of the judiciary in Bulgaria will continue to be damaged until a fully secure system is in place. Using external IT security expertise to test the new system would help to reassure that this is on the right track," it concludes.

As for the judicial reform strategies, the Commission says "the strategy has introduced a degree of clarity and urgency into the debate on judicial reform - this will now need to be carried through into implementation."

It praises the judiciary for the implementation of the action plan tabled by Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov in 2013 and also commends him on his proposals of November 2014 "for the decentralization of the prosecution and providing additional guarantees of non-interference in the work of prosecutors."

Work on a new Criminal Code "has progressed, but still lacks a consensus. Experts and practitioners have expressed divergent views about whether a complete rewrite is needed, or just amendments – and about the overall rationale."

The Commission voices its concern over the continuing problems with the methodology for assessment of the workload of magistrates and judicial bodies, calling differences in the workload "a significant cause of inefficiency in the system."

Disciplinary action is characterized by the presence of some problems including "a lack of consistency (and clear standards to deliver this), with a high proportion of
decisions being overturned in appeal."

Bulgarian authorities' approach to the problem of "convicted criminals having been able to escape justice and abscond" is criticized here as it "continues to lack conviction" and "the issue has not been looked at comprehensively."

In the field of corruption, the Commission describes measures adopted over the past year as a "piecemeal approach" also marked by "an insufficient use of risk assessments, and an absence of monitoring and evaluation." The absence of a centralized structure or common benchmarks "results in different ministerial inspectorates acting in an uncoordinated way," the executive body believes. An anti-corruption unit called BORKOR, which was set up a few years ago to prepare risk analyses, "does not seem to have delivered results in proportion to its costs."  

The Commission pays attention to Parliament's delay in legislative amendments regarding conflict of interest and illicit enrichment. It also notes that "there are so far very few final convictions in cases involving substantial corruption, despite the scale of the problem." As another problem it points to "deficiencies in rules in the Criminal Code to fight corruption, and in particular "high-level corruption", trading in influence and the differentiation of active and passive corruption."

"Organized crime remains a problem in Bulgaria," the report reads: "Whilst the number of cases initiated by the prosecution seems to have increased substantially in 2014, the number of cases that have reached final conclusion remains low... The specialized prosecution and court put in place two years ago are slowly starting to yield some results, with a few final convictions, and some evidence of swifter procedures. But their action remains hindered by an unfocussed attribution of tasks and very formalistic provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code."

The Commission says Bulgaria should take action in the following areas:

- independence, accountability and integrity of the judiciary - by pursuing reform of the SJC, applying objective standards of merit, integrity and transparency to appointments within the judiciary, eventually having a Chief Inspector appointed and improving security of the system of random allocation of cases;

- reform of the judicial system - through a new judicial strategy, addressing "critical areas in the Criminal Code" and reconsidering in time its "fundamental goals"

- efficiency of the judicial system - completing the methodology for assessment of workload of magistrates and courts, enforcing clear procedures and standards for penalties and achieving concrete progress on e-justice

- corruption - entrusting a single institution with the authority and autonomy needed to coordinate and control the enforcement of anti-corruption activities; putting forth a solid national anti-corruption strategy and upholding the public procurement strategy of July 2014; legislative changes to conflict of interest law; better used of the system of assets declarations; boosting the prosecution's capacity to pursue high-level corruption cases;

- organized crime - creating the necessary conditions for the Specialized Court for Organized Crime to be able to concentrate on high profile, complex cases; monitor the progress of high-level organized crime cases; ensure that high-level defendants do not abscond from justice; provide for operational continuity in the case of changes to structure involved in the investigation of organized crime.

The full text is available here.

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Tags: Supreme Judicial Council, Supreme Court of Cassation, Chief Inspector, Sotir Tsatsarov, judicial reform strategy, cvm report, Schengen, Sofia City Court, Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes, random allocation of cases, Commission


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