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Mountains of files, mistrust – but progress

EU Commission chief von der Leyen sees Ukraine’s legal reform as being well advanced – at the same time, the country lacks judges and many have no basic trust in the judiciary. Why even a minister is skeptical.

Stacks of files are piled up on the tables in the hearing room of the Pechersk District Court in Kiev. There is now an archive where negotiations normally take place. There are simply too many unprocessed cases at the court and so the room becomes a storage place. Too many cases for too few judges – the problem exists everywhere in Ukraine. “There are courts that have no judges at all or only one,” says legal expert Volodomyr Tschaban. “This problem mainly affects the local level, the first instance, but we are understaffed at all levels.”

According to official statistics, 2,000 of the total 7,000 judge positions are vacant. The High Qualifications Commission responsible for recruitment was frozen for years and so vacant judge positions were not filled. “This has a direct impact on their workload. And that in turn can have an impact on the quality of their work,” says Tschaban. The expert works for the EU-funded organization “Pravo-Justice”. She advises Ukrainian legal authorities on judicial reform.

“Lots of positive progress”

The reform is considered a condition for starting EU accession talks. Brussels handed over a total of seven recommendations to the Ukrainian government in the summer of 2022. Two points are aimed at the judiciary. One demand is that the High Qualifications Commission responsible for appointing judges must become functional again. Kiev has formally fulfilled this and other things, says Tschaban. “Ukraine has indeed made a lot of positive progress.”

Another request from the EU Commission has also been implemented: a newly created group of experts, half made up of Ukrainian and half foreign members, is to be involved in the pre-selection of candidates for the Constitutional Court. The experts should examine the extent to which candidates are morally and professionally suitable for the office of constitutional judge. Ultimately, they are appointed by a council of judges, the Ukrainian parliament and the president.

The files are piling up in a Kiev courtroom – it can no longer be used for court hearings.

Von der Leyen praises “result of hard work”

President Volodymyr Zelenskyj signed the law that regulates the composition of the Constitutional Court in August. On that day, Zelenskyj spoke of “one of the most important laws” for the start of accession negotiations with the EU. According to the President, the law enables a transparent, professional and fair selection of judges of the Constitutional Court. This would make Ukraine one step closer to joining the EU, he said at the time.

When EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Kiev at the weekend, her testimony was also positive. Ukraine meets the requirements for starting negotiations “well over 90 percent”. Von der Leyen appeared together with Zelensky in front of Ukrainian and foreign journalists in the presidential palace. Addressing the Ukrainian president, she said: “You are in an existential war and at the same time you are in the process of profoundly reforming your country.” In addition to cracking down on money laundering and oligarchs, von der Leyen also highlighted judicial reform. “This is the result of hard work.”

Bribery case at the Supreme Court

Mykhailo Schernakov, chairman of the non-governmental organization Dejure, also sees his country on the right track when it comes to judicial reform. The former judge also sees the EU’s conditions as formally met. But the reform is far from over, says Schernakov: “Many problems with integrity and professionalism can be traced back to an inadequate level of training.” Therefore, the training of lawyers must also be reformed.

And the expert warns: “We have to renew the Supreme Court because there have been some scandals there that have shown that this institution is not completely independent and has integrity.” In May, investigators uncovered a case of corruption at this same court. Its president Vsevolod Knyasiev is said to have accepted bribes worth three million US dollars. Photos of lots of wads of cash made the rounds.

Scandals like these also explain the low level of trust Ukrainians have in their courts. According to a recent survey, only around 25 percent believe their dishes are trustworthy. Even Olha Stefanischyna, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for European Integration, said this ARD in an interview: “I’m happy with our progress, but as a citizen I still don’t feel like I can fully trust the justice system.” The reform process in the judiciary is extremely lengthy and will continue, said the minister. But with the implementation of the EU recommendations, the first foundations have been created.

Niels Bula, ARD Kiev, tagesschau, November 8th, 2023 8:43 a.m

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