22 members and 15 observers of the ENCJ met in The Hague for their General Assembly entitled “promoting effective justice systems” between 3rd and 5th June 2015. The Croatian and Hungarian Councils were elected as new full members of the ENCJ, and the Albanian Council became an observer.
On Thursday 4th June, the President of the ENCJ, Sir Geoffrey Vos, welcomed the keynote speakers, Ms Vera Jourova, the European Commissioner for Justice, and Ms Eleanor Sharpston, Advocate General at the Court of Justice of the European Union. He introduced the ENCJ’s latest report on the independence and accountability of the judiciary and of the prosecution, which included the results of the first Europe-wide survey of the subjective views of nearly 6,000 judges across 22 European countries. The survey showed that, on average, judges rated their own independence on a scale of 1 to 10, at 8.8, and the independence of judges in their own country generally at 7.9.
Several of the outcomes of the survey were, however, of concern. A large number of judges did not feel that their independence had been respected by government and the media. Many judges also thought that appointments and promotions in their countries had not been made only on the basis of ability and experience. In half of the countries surveyed, more than 30% of judges either thought that judicial bribery had occurred in the last 2 years or were not sure if it had occurred.
The ENCJ’s report also included the outcomes of the application of indicators of the independence and accountability of the judiciary to all its members and observers. This exercise showed that there was much room for improvement in both subjective and objective independence. In relation to objective independence, scores were particularly low for the funding and management of the judiciary showing that many are still financially and managerially dependent on discretionary decisions of government. Many judiciaries still need to gather data about the perceptions of court users.
Ms Jourova spoke about the excellent co-operation between the European Commission and the ENCJ in relation particularly to the Justice Scoreboard and issues of the structural independence of the judiciary. She said she looked forward to future cooperation on the effectiveness of safeguards to protect the judiciary from inappropriate influences.
The General Assembly also approved the ENCJ’s project report setting out minimum standards for judicial disciplinary proceedings.
The General Assembly debated 12 important challenges to the independence of the judiciary and to the efficiency of justice raised by member Councils.The President said that, in the coming year, the ENCJ would be starting a series of dialogue groups aimed at finding solutions to the problems faced by Councils for Judiciary across Europe in relation to the independence and accountability of their judiciaries, and work would be done to identify indicators of quality and effective justice systems, and there would be a project group considering the involvement of civil society in Councils for the Judiciary and in judicial management and administration.
The ENCJ noted with great concern the well-publicised events in relation to judges and the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors in Turkey. It will carefully monitor developments over the coming weeks with a view to further ENCJ engagement.
The General Assembly concluded with the adoption of The Hague Declaration on promoting effective justice systems which recited that the ENCJ’s four year plan has focused the ENCJ on encouraging its member Councils for the Judiciary and its observers to adhere more closely to the standards, guidelines and statements of best practice that it has developed in order to make their justice systems even more effective. The Declaration states that:-
1. Independent and accountable judiciaries are an essential component of high quality, effective and efficient justice systems, and a prerequisite for a well-functioning EU area of justice;
2. The ENCJ will facilitate the use of dialogue groups and other means to enable its members and observers to enhance the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of justice in their countries for the benefit of all persons;
3. The ENCJ will continue to develop and improve its standards, guidelines and statements of best practice and find ways to ensure that its members and observers more closely comply with them in order to improve their justice systems; and
4. The ENCJ will endeavour to identify elements that constitute a quality justice system and subsequently develop indicators that will assist in the evaluation of the measurement of the quality of justice with a view to its enhancement across the EU and in candidate member states.