June 4, 2015

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ENCJ effective operator in Europe

In his opening speech at the General Assembly of the European Network for Councils of the Judiciary (ENCJ) in the Peace Palace in The Hague, ENCJ President Sir Geoffrey Vos said Thursday that the network has turned the corner from making a series of best practices and putting forward principles and making statements, to becoming ‘an effective operator on the European stage.’

High standards

The last ten 10 years were spent undertaking the hard work necessary to lay down standards and guidelines for independent, accountable and effective justice systems. But in that period, according to ENCJ President Geoffrey Vos, ‘we did only a little to ensure that our members and observers put the standards and guidelines fully into practice. That is what we have now started to do in earnest.’ Adding: ‘We will put our high standards into practice and work with our members to promote and actually achieve effective and efficient justice systems across member states and in candidate member states as well.’


Small dialogue groups

In the last 2 years the ENCJ has taken its ‘first few sure-footed’ steps to realise some ambitious aspirations, Sir Geoffrey Vos said. The ENCJ identified the indicators of an independent and accountable justice system, and applied these indicators to each of its members and observers. ‘In the coming year, we will establish a series of small dialogue groups between our members and observers to discuss the challenges identified by the application of these indicators and develop effective workable solutions to bring each justice system to a new level of efficiency and effectiveness’, ENCJ President Vos said. Adding: ‘We all have things to learn. But just as we all have things to learn as to the independence and accountability of our judiciaries, we all have things to learn about how to improve the quality of our justice systems.’


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Excellent cooperation with EU

Sir Geoffrey concluded his Speech (pdf, 57.5 KB) President Geoffrey Vos.pdfSpeech by saying how much the ENCJ values cooperation with the European Commission. A feeling that was reciprocated by European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová, who said she was delighted to see the results of this cooperation. ‘The EU Justice Scoreboard has improved with every new edition. This is also thanks to the excellent cooperation with the ENCJ. The first edition of the Scoreboard back in 2013 presented data on quality and efficiency of national justice systems from several sources. However, the part on independence relied on surveys measuring the perception of independence. While perception of independence is a relevant indicator, what really matters is that a justice system effectively protects judicial independence through legal safeguards.’ However, comparable data on such safeguards, the so-called structural independence, were not available for most Member States, she added. ‘This is why we turned to you, bodies defending judicial independence. Thanks to the valuable input of the ECNJ, the EU Justice Scoreboard 2015 now provides new data on the structural independence of the judiciary.’

European Commissioner Jourová told the ENCJ Assembly that the Commission is ready to explore how these results can feed into reflections for the 2016 EU Justice Scoreboard.


Assess legal safeguards

However, cooperation between the ENCJ and the EU should not stop there, European Commissioner Jourová added. ‘We will encourage judicial networks to assess legal safeguards more thoroughly. This is a sensitive issue that requires a qualitative assessment; hence it can be best done by networks such as the ENCJ.’ EU Commissioner Věra Jourová remarked that different national justice systems have different solutions to protect judicial independence.’ But she added: ‘Despite this diversity, the challenges to judicial independence are the same everywhere: political attacks, attempts at undermining the status of judges, cutting the funding of the judiciaries are all common. This is where your assistance as practitioners can make a difference.’

Proud of ENCJ report

Chairman of the Netherlands Council for the Judiciary Frits Bakker in his Opening speech (pdf, 216.6 KB) General Assembly ENCJ 4 June FRITS BAKKER.pdfopening remarks emphasized the importance and uniqueness of the ENCJ report on Independence and Accountability of the Judiciary and of the Prosecution. ‘As Chairman of the working group Independence and Accountability, I am particularly proud that the ENCJ produced this report. I can tell you that it was a very intense and complicated process to finish this report and give recommendations that will help our judiciaries’, Frits Bakker said. After the opening speeches in the Peace Palace, ENCJ Members and Observers on Thursday discussed the report on Independence and Accountability.

Far-reaching questions

The ENCJ started the project on independence and accountability 2 years ago, first as a working group with a pilot amongst ENCJ judiciaries to define the indicators. In 2015 the ENCJ used the feedback of the pilots to develop the questionnaires on independence and accountability. ‘This questionnaire was sent to all the judges, and that’s unique’, Chairman of the Netherlands Council for the Judiciary Frits Bakker added with some pride. ‘Almost 6,000 judges in more than 20 countries responded to far-reaching questions. The results of the extensive survey may be worrisome to some, Frits Bakker admits. ‘It is never easy to be confronted with discrepancies or ineffective procedures within our own judiciaries. For some of the contributors the challenges may seem bigger than predicted. However, I really believe that we can really learn from each other and excel as judiciaries.’ Frits Bakker therefore applauds the members and observers who decided to contribute, ‘even when beforehand the outcome and direction of the report were unpredictable.’

Extensive budget cuts

Chairman Frits Bakker encourages ENCJ members and observers to use the report on Independence and Accountability for their own benefit. ‘All of the governments have gone through extensive budget cuts in these past years. It is the easy way to accept this and allow for a standstill or even deterioration. But we have to send the message that to ensure effective justice; judiciaries should have enough funds, be independent and accountable. The report can be used to promote progression instead of stagnation.’

Serve and protect

Eleanor Sharpston, Advocate General at the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxemburg, commented that the promise of effective judicial protection is to be found in many places. ‘How exactly they are worded, the principles are essentially the same: the courts are there to serve and protect the citizen. And it is the national judge who is required to strike the balance and to deliver the required protection within the confines of the national legal system.’ This doctrine of effective protection of rights under EU law, requires a lot from a national judge, said Eleanor Sharpston in the Peace Palace. ‘It requires intellectual qualities, knowledge, enormous integrity and independence. I, the national judge, have to act. I can’t pass that responsibility to someone else. Lord Justice Vos described the role of the ENCJ in contributing towards this objective. Learning from colleagues, sharing experiences and sharing best practices are clearly crucial to delivering on the promise. We all know that our own judicial system has many strengths and advantages. Having said that, there is no harm in seeing whether the neighbours have a good idea. There is little point in re-inventing the wheel if there is an excellent model just next door.’