2020 Rule of Law Report: The Level of Perceived Judicial Independence in Bulgaria Remains Low
The European Commission has today published the first EU-wide report on the rule of law. Today's report includes input from every Member State and covers both positive and negative developments across the EU. It shows that many Member States have high rule of law standards, but important challenges to the rule of law exist in the EU. It also reflects relevant developments stemming from the emergency measures taken by Member States due to the coronavirus crisis. The report covers four main pillars with a strong bearing on the rule of law: national justice systems, anti-corruption frameworks, media pluralism and freedom, and other institutional issues related to the checks and balances essential to an effective system of democratic governance.
The aim of the new Rule of Law Report is to enlarge the existing EU toolbox with a new preventive tool and kick-start an inclusive debate and rule of law culture across the EU. It should help all Member States examine how challenges can be addressed, how they can learn from each other's experiences, and show how the rule of law can be further strengthened in full respect of national constitutional systems and traditions.
Judicial reform in Bulgaria has been a gradual process with important implications for judicial independence and public confidence. Challenges remain, in particular on the need to finalise, taking account of the Venice Commission opinion, the reform process commenced in 2019 regarding legal procedures concerning the effective accountability and criminal liability of the Prosecutor General. The composition and functioning of the Supreme Judicial Council and its Inspectorate have also been subject of further debate, leading to new reform proposals.
More generally, attacks against the judiciary are reported to increase without proper reaction from the competent authorities. Controversial provisions relating to the automatic suspension of magistrates in case of a criminal investigation, and to the obligation for magistrates to declare their membership in professional organisations, have been repealed.
In 2017 and 2018, Bulgaria carried out a comprehensive reform of its legal and institutional anti-corruption frameworks. The reform has led to improved cooperation between the relevant authorities. A number of high-level investigations were launched in the first half of 2020 and charges have been brought in a number of cases.
The new reforms provide for public access to the property and interests declarations of senior public office holders which can be considered a good practice. Nevertheless, important challenges remain, as also illustrated by the perception surveys that show a very low level of public trust in the anticorruption institutions. Lack of results in the fight against corruption is one of the key aspects raised throughout the summer 2020 protests.
A solid track-record of final convictions in highlevel corruption cases remains to be established. Better and more effective communication as regards the development and implementation of the anti-corruption strategy would be beneficial. It is important that the authorities are provided with sufficient resources in order to be able to fight corruption effectively.
A legal framework is in place for conflict of interest, yet concerns exist as regards lobbying, which remains unregulated by law, and the transparency and predictability of the legislative process in the country. Concerning media pluralism, the Bulgarian legal framework is based on a set of constitutional safeguards and legislative measures, such as the Radio and Television Act, which are often not effectively implemented in practice.
The Audiovisual Media Regulatory Authority (CEM) is considered as independent and transparent about its activities, but the Authority lacks resources to perform its tasks efficiently. Lack of transparency of media ownership is considered as a source of concern. The legal framework against political interference in the media does not explicitly forbid politicians from owning outlets, and links between political actors and some media outlets have been established. Several media freedom associations report physical or online attacks on journalists.
Issues concerning checks and balances include concerns about the limited use of public consultations and impact assessment in the legislative process. Despite their limited resources, the functioning of national human rights institutions has continued to improve. The already narrowed civic space in Bulgaria could be further affected in view of a new draft law on foreign funding for NGOs.
The Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was established at the accession to the European Union in 2007 as a transitional measure to facilitate Bulgaria’s continued efforts to reform its judiciary and step up the fight against corruption and organised crime. In line with the decision setting up the mechanism and as underlined by the Council, the CVM ends when all the benchmarks applying to Bulgaria are satisfactorily met. The latest CVM report, adopted in October 2019, recorded that Bulgaria had made a number of further commitments and the Commission concluded that the progress made under the CVM was sufficient to meet Bulgaria’s commitments made at the time of its accession to the EU.
As the Commission also underlined, Bulgaria will need to continue working consistently on translating the commitments specified in its report into concrete legislation and on continued implementation. Before taking a final decision, the Commission will also take duly into account the observations of the Council, as well as of the European Parliament.
- A reform concerning the accountability of the Prosecutor General and his or her deputies is ongoing.
- Despite the progress made, the composition and functioning of the Supreme Judicial Council has been subject of further debate.
- The level of perceived judicial independence in Bulgaria remains low.
- The regime for additional remuneration and promotion of magistrates raises concerns.
- Access to justice requires improvement.
- Financial and human resources raise concerns.
- The lack of data regarding civil and commercial 1st and 2nd instance courts still hinders the monitoring of the efficiency of justice.
In the latest Transparency International 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, Bulgaria scored 43/100 and was ranked last in the EU and 74th globally.
The legal framework to fight corruption is largely in place, but challenges remain.
The Anti-corruption Commission has faced a number of challenges since its establishment.
Here is the full report of law situation in Bulgaria
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