Fear and loathing in Hungary’s judiciary

November 8, 2017

Fear and loathing in Hungary's judiciary
Gábor G. Székely and László Ravasz | Photo: RTL

Yesterday, we reported that National Office of the Judiciary (OBH) president Tünde Handó had blocked Judge Péter Szepesházi from appearing on RTL Klub’s Magyarul Balóval, a widely-watched television talk show addressing matters of Hungarian public life. In addition to blocking Szepesházi’s participation, the OBH declined to send its own representative to the show.

(OBH president Tünde Handó is the wife of Fidesz MEP and European People’s Party co-chair József Szájer who, during a recent town hall forum to drum up support for the government’s “Soros Plan” national consultation, compared the refugee crisis to the Game of Thrones Army of the Dead.)

The program aired Tuesday and featured former judges László Ravasz and Gábor Székely. In short, the judges said:

  • Independence is not guaranteed for judges in Hungary;
  • The judiciary operates in a non-transparent manner and judges are employed at the mercy of their superiors; and
  • Judges cannot be open about the problems affecting the judiciary.

Ravasz was once unlawfully fired from his job but the Constitutional Court reinstated him in 2014 after reviewing his case. He stopped presiding over court cases in late December 2016 and was put on disability by his superiors after an office accident that damaged his spine.

Székely was a judge between 2012 and 2015. After his superiors initiated a review of his cases, and after an earlier questionable disciplinary inquiry, Székely was removed from his post. He currently has three ongoing cases against the judiciary: one in Hungary’s Constitutional Court, another in the European Court of Human Rights, and one against his former employer in Hungary’s labor court.

What is the problem with Hungary’s judiciary?

“The fundamental problem is that the [political] system change never happened in the judiciary,” Székely said. Judges and the judiciary as an institution are still stuck in the “communist system, the political dictatorship,” he said.

“The same structure, the same methods, the mechanics operate in the judiciary today that existed 60 years ago,” Székely continued.

Ravasz agreed with Székely’s assertion, adding that change is desperately needed in order “to ensure that the judiciary can operate independently of politics.”

According to Ravasz, the reason the judiciary was never changed is because those in power wish to retain political influence over the courts.

“In other words, politics wants to keep influencing the rulings of judges,” Ravasz said. “This is what was ensured [during communist times] and this is what is happening today. The biggest problem is that a judge presiding over a case cannot be considered to be independent.”

Ravasz said judges cannot be considered independent because they are influenced by their superiors, as “their entire financial well-being depends on [being in the good graces of the] courthouse president. Only the [courthouse presidents] have the authority to decide on the financial well-being of individual judges.

“The problem here is that these senior judges can decide when to launch disciplinary proceedings against a judge and decide whether a judge is deemed fit to serve. Advancing professionally as a judge depends entirely on these senior judges and there are no controls to this process. This allows the senior judges to influence the decisions of their subordinates,” Ravasz said.

Why aren’t more judges speaking up?

According to Székely, “there is a great amount of fear within the judiciary. There is so much pressure on judges from their employer that the judges are reluctant to speak publicly.”

Székely said there are countless ways for the senior officials in the judiciary to exert pressure on judges. One particular way, he says, is for the officials to simply overwhelm a judge with a high number of complex cases “for the purpose of destroying them.”

This, of course, means that judges must abide by the very stringent time restraints placed on them by the judicial system, he says. (The rapid deliberation of cases is a hallmark of OBH president Tünde Handó’s positive propaganda.)

There is an automated case distribution system, Székely said, but this is easily circumvented. Due to this manner in which cases are assigned to judges, Ravasz said, “I do maintain that several hundred thousand, if not a million, rulings must be overturned because of the failures of senior judiciary officials and Tünde Handó.”

Why are judges so complacent if the system is so bad?

According to Székely, judges simply get by until “their own shirtsleeves get caught in the grinder — that’s when they realize the scale of these problems.”

In Székely’s case, he says his superiors concocted a disciplinary issue that “they could just keep in the drawer. That’s when I realized that if they do this once, they could do it a dozen times or more, and I would also be like those colleagues of mine who walk down the corridors of the building with their heads hung low because they cannot raise their voices against even the most egregious acts of unlawfulness. These judges get forced into more trivial situations and, by the end of it all, they no longer know whether they are victims or perpetrators.

“When I brought this up, I turned to the judicial service court. That set into motion an avalanche, at the end of which I was deemed unfit to serve,” he said.

Isn’t it natural for one’s professional advancement to depend on the review of his or her superiors?

Ravasz says the case is different with judges: in Western Europe, the advancement of judges is decided by objective metrics “precisely so that the judicial officials cannot use a judge’s financial well-being to influence the rulings of individual judges. This is fundamental to guaranteeing the independence of judges.

“Judges in Hungary do not raise their voices when this happens because they are financially at the mercy of their superiors,” he said.

Székely added that even if a judge raises his or her voice and challenges such coercion, the only forum for doing so is behind closed doors in the judicial service court, “where anything can happen,” and not in a labor court.

“The judicial service court is a court in name only. It is where judges make decisions about themselves, about each other,” Székely said. “In my case, I was presided over by judges that were appointed by Tünde Handó. These people ruled over my case while I was also suing the Tünde Handó-led National Office of the Judiciary.

“In other words, if judges want to defend themselves, that must happen within the judicial service court in a process that is reminiscent of the 1950s.”

Székely said he has filed cases with the European Court of Human Rights on this matter.

On the independence of judges

According to Ravasz, not all cases are subject to political influence. The cases that are targeted by undue influence are those which are personally important to senior judicial officials or those which have political importance.

When considering the numbers, these cases are a small proportion of cases tried “but they are the most important,” Ravasz said. “These are the most politically sensitive cases. We know this is happening,” he said, adding that he could cite such cases.

Ravasz went so far as to say that he has evidence his superiors ordered him to rule in a particular way for a case.

“I have it in writing,” he said, before adding he did not rule the way he was instructed, so his decision was overturned and another ruling was issued in accordance with the instructions he had received from his superiors.

“The most outrageous things can happen,” Székely agreed.

“As a civil law judge, I was arbitrarily stripped of cases. I have evidence showing how an independent judiciary unlawfully strips individual judges of their cases and reassigns them to other judges.”

Judges are not allowed to speak openly about these problems.

Ravasz said: “There’s no better way to prove that judges cannot speak openly about these problems than to acknowledge the fact that our judge colleague was restricted from appearing on this [television] program to share his personal views on this matter.”

Ravasz said he was fired from his position after a disciplinary proceeding was launched against him for writing an article in a newspaper about the abuses taking place in the judiciary. His termination was eventually overturned by the Constitutional Court.

But both former judges say that rules governing the conduct of judges (and their respective criticism of the judiciary) are so subjective and loosely defined that any judge who raises his or her voice is immediately subject to disciplinary proceedings (which may eventually lead to their termination).

According to Ravasz, the law on the conduct of judges states that judges are forbidden from making any statements that endanger or call into question the credibility of the judiciary.

“They can pretty much fit anything into that,” he said. “These rules are much more well-defined in The Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, which clearly states the conduct that is expected of judges. That document is much more precise in outlining the behavior that is acceptable for judges.”

If everything is so bad, then why is the National Office of the Judiciary saying that the courts are more efficient and are doing a better job at engaging the public?

“We do see an improvement [in OBH’s attempts to inform the public], but the problem is that they are not informing them of reality,” Ravasz said. “They are always painting an idyllic picture of the judiciary. This success propaganda [of the OBH] and the reality behind the scenes are totally incompatible. Totally incompatible. The problem with this is that any issue that is brought to the public’s attention concerning the judiciary is immediately discarded, made to disappear.”

Székely added that it is rare for court documents not to be pre- or post-dated, or for the minutes of a court hearing to reflect what was actually said.

György Baló, the host of Magyarul Balóval (Hungarian With Baló) asked Székely whether he could be sued by the OBH for making such statements, to which Székely responded: “I would welcome being sued for making this statement. I could prove this. I would also appreciate no longer being bound by my non-disclosure agreement so that I could name names, years, and case numbers. I would welcome that.”

Ravasz sat there, nodding his head.