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The present Government has taken significant steps to start the reform of its public administration, including the judicial branch. In the area of legal and judicial reform, important changes have been or will soon be implemented.

As illustrated in the Judicial Assessment, much still remains to be done. The judicial branch has no centralized management staff for budgetary and administrative planning, no effective disciplinary organization, no facilities or other arrangements for training new personnel or for continuing education of existing personnel, no centralized or uniform case management criteria or system, very poor enforcement of judgements, poor physical court facilities in the busiest courts, and very poor administrative and clerical assistance for judicial professionals.

There is clear commitment on the part of the Government to fight corruption and, as part of this effort, to tackle some related issues in the functioning of the judicial system. Many of the reforms already undertaken, or in the pipeline, are extremely necessary and timely. In contrast to the Government’s planned reform of its public administration, the measures taken to date in the area of judicial reform do not appear to form part of an overarching, integrated judicial reform strategy but rather, represent a sequence of reactive measures designed in large part to combat corruption and overcome perceived inefficiencies in the system.

In order to bring about systemic change in the judicial system as a whole, a strategic vision for the judicial branch needs to be developed and a holistic reform program designed and implemented. Assuming any such national program to be sound, its adoption would most certainly act as a catalyst in attracting foreign financing for judicial reform activities.

The most critical reforms and measures suggested in the body of the Judicial Assessment are summarized below. All the suggestions made by the Bank in the Judicial Assessment are intended to assist the Government in forming a clear picture of the breadth of the reforms necessary in designing a program to bring about systemic change in the judicial system. On the basis of the recommendations made, the Government should continue its efforts to develop the direction and design of its own reform program and take the first, and most fundamental step toward this goal, the preparation of a phased reform program for the judicial system.

An institutional body should be charged with this task, a body or working group representing a cross section of interests in the judicial system including from the following: judicial branch professionals, the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), legal NGOs, legal academics, Ministry of Interior, Bulgarian Bar Association, Ministry of Education. This working group would then also form a counterpart group to coordinate the activities of various donors and international financial institutions in the area of legal and judicial reform.

A Proposed Reform Agenda

Strengthening the SJC

An important weakness identified in the Judicial Assessment lies in the lack of institutional support for the SJC in fulfilling its constitutional mandate to oversee the judicial branch. As recommended in the Judicial Assessment, strengthening the SJC represents an essential prerequisite for any reform program in order to allow it properly to perform its constitutional role. Support is necessary to build its budgetary, supervisory and planning capacity, its methodology in personnel matters and its capacity to assess the physical needs of the courts. To implement the Government’s anti-corruption strategy, an internal affairs function within SJC should be developed to handle internal corruption investigations on an on-going basis for all parts of the judiciary.

Fundamental Public Administration Issues

Other broader issues, critical to a judicial reform strategy, should be looked at by GOB. These include: the extent of the immunities given to the judiciary; determination of a satisfactory pay scale for judges; and achieving greater coordination between the functions and resources of the SJC and the MOJ and devising means so that these two bodies could work together to assist each in performing their respective roles.

Tackling the Inefficiencies in the Court System

Both the Judicial Assessment and the USAID report make a number of recommendations for the improvement of caseload management in the courts. The GOB is urged to build upon existing efforts to create the Uniform Information System, initially for the criminal caseload, and later for the civil caseload. A computerized case-tracking, file management, and docketing system should be developed for the courts to enable them to capture complete information on length of cases and manner of disposition at each stage of a case.

Before seeking donor assistance, an internal review of each part of the judicial branch should be undertaken to determine the computer assets owned in the courts and to evaluate the software systems available. This review should be combined with an analysis of any physical space available and modifications required to the court buildings in order to provide for increased computerization. The clerical needs of the courts also need to be examined in the light of the USAID report and the advent of increased computerization.

Functions of, and Alternatives to, the Court System

Other components of an overall judicial strengthening program should also include measures such as the development of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and the establishment of "small claims" courts or procedures. It will also be necessary to take a long, hard look at the functions performed by the courts, such as registration of land and enterprises, and to determine if the courts are the proper place for these functions.

Improving the Quality of Legal Education and Legislative Drafting

Within the context of the Government’s reform program in the area of higher education, the education and training needs of Bulgarian lawyers and judges need to be reassessed. Experts, preferably from a civil law system within the EU, may be able to provide assistance in this area. A similar assessment should also be carried out, in consultation with the EU, of the process and quality of legislative drafting.

Focus on Enforcement

Greater emphasis should be placed on developing measures to improve the enforcement of judgments. Any other measures to strengthen the judiciary would come to nothing if the present weaknesses in enforcement remained an ongoing bottleneck in the administration of justice.

Access to Justice

In view of the EU’s accession requirements, further analysis could usefully be undertaken of any real or perceived obstacles to easy access to justice for all citizens.

Anti-Corruption Strategy

A functioning and independent judiciary is central to any anti-corruption strategy. The courts cannot be effective in controlling corruption unless corruption is eradicated from within the ranks of the judiciary. The proposals made in this report for strengthening the SJC, establishing ethical norms, formalized disciplinary channels and an oversight function for the judiciary would constitute the first steps in attempting to rid the judiciary of internal corruption and equip it to be an effective tool in the Government’s overall anti-corruption strategy. The Government is also urged to look at the issues raised in this report on the extent of the criminal immunity granted to members of the judiciary.

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