The Hungarian government has backtracked on plans to reform the country’s court system, avoiding a showdown with the EU, which had criticised the measures for posing a threat to the independence of the judiciary. The reforms would have set up separate administrative courts, overseen directly by the justice minister, to handle cases involving the state, such as taxation and elections, which are currently processed in the main legal system.
The law had been roundly criticised by civil society groups and the EU for potentially opening the door to the politicisation of the courts.
“The Government believes that Justice should be protected against unnecessary disputes and, therefore, will maintain a single judicial system,” Justice Minister, Judit Varga said in comments reported by Reuters. She added that the new plan would provide a “clear framework” for this type of litigation, speed up the closure of appeals, and “make legal practice more predictable.”
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government had already announced a delay in the implementation of the reform, passed by Parliament more than a year ago, after it was criticised by the Venice Commission, a European panel of constitutional law experts.
In its report, the Commission concluded that “the broad powers reserved for the Minister by the law as regards the appointment and career of judges, promotion to positions of responsibility, salary increases and so on raise questions over the lack of real review procedures.”
It also said that the independent judicial council proposed by the law to oversee the court system “did not seem capable of acting as an effective counterbalance to the Minister of Justice”.
A similarly contentious reform by the Polish government to change the retirement age for judges was ruled to be in violation of EU law by the European Court of Justice on Tuesday.
Hungary and Poland’s right-wing governments have had a series of run-ins with Brussels over perceived efforts to tighten government control over media outlets, NGOs and universities, culminating in Article 7 procedures being launched against them for “violating European values, which could result in them losing their voting rights in the European Council.