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Analysis of the Bulgarian Judicial System - Combating Misperceptions and Seeking Solutions

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Executive Summary

In many respects, Bulgaria has been successful in its transition from a former Soviet state into an electoral democracy. Yet in spite of this success the Bulgarian people have a great amount of mistrust for their political institutions. According to Ivan Krastev, the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, the Bulgarian view of democracy can sometimes make it seem rather akin to the Human Resources department at a major corporation; the people may change, but the underlying policy remains the same. This presents a particular problem in regard to sectors that are perceived poorly by the citizenry, as there is especially strong disincentive to promoting change if the popular belief holds that the status quo is impermeable to the will of the people.

One such example is the Bulgarian judicial sector, which has not enjoyed the support of much of the country’s population. The judiciary is generally mistrusted due to the perception that the system is inefficient and corrupt. To be sure, there are a number of factors that could be streamlined or strengthened. Yet on the whole, the judicial system in Bulgaria works more effectively than much of the public might expect. In order to assess the state of this system – where it stands in relation to the rest of Europe, where its flaws lie, what questions remain unanswered – the  Centre for Liberal Strategies undertook a review of the procedures and efficacy of Bulgaria’s Supreme Judicial Council.

The results were somewhat surprising, in that by many standards the Bulgarian judicial system is comparable to others throughout the continent. Relatively speaking, the size of, and portion of the national budget spent on, the judiciary is roughly the same as other European countries, though the absolute figures are obviously much smaller than in some of Bulgaria’s larger neighbors. Using widely approved standards of efficiency, such as trial duration, the country’s justice system likewise did not stand out as an outlier. Yet these comparisons alone guarantees neither the efficiency nor the scrupulousness required of the judiciary and its public servants. Over the course of their analysis, the researchers at the Centre for Liberal Strategies made a number of observations about where improvements might be made, including the following two suggestions:

  • Streamline the annual evaluation process among the various departments of the judiciary, in order to make information more accessible to the general public and dispel the notion that the legal system is labyrinthine and ineffective
  • Make a more concerted effort to prosecute organized crime and related felonies, and corruption; while more attention is being devoted to the latter, the low rate of conviction vis-à-vis the frequency with which these types of crimes occur reinforces the public’s perception of the judiciary as an untrustworthy arbiter of justice

The two suggestions above share a common theme: accessibility. It is essential that the public feel that the judicial system is both within reach and responsive to their needs. Ultimately, public perception is key; the general public needs to see an efficient system at work, and at least as importantly, it needs to see the prosecution of big cases (those involving corrupt politicians, leaders of organized crime, etc.). Without clear, concrete evidence of diligent work, the Bulgarian public will not alter its current opinion. It is therefore necessary that work be done to correct the remaining issues that stand in the way of achieving a renewal of trust between the public and its institutions.

 

Improving the Judicial System – An Overview

Over the course of nearly fifteen months, the Centre for Liberal Strategies, supported by the British Embassy in Bulgaria and Bulgaria’s Supreme Judicial Council, worked to formulate a series of indicators that could be used to monitor efficiency and improvement within Bulgaria’s judiciary. The subsequent analysis that took place represented a rare instance in which outside observers were allowed to monitor the judiciary, making the results all the more valuable. The final report, released by the Centre for Liberal Strategies at the conclusion of its investigation, highlighted a number of important observations about the state of Bulgaria’s judicial system, and what must be done to improve it.

The Trial Process

Despite the general opinion of the Bulgarian public – according to a survey by the Alfa Research Agency, only thirty percent of Bulgarians responded favorably when asked about the judiciary – the bureaucracy is in reality more efficient than the word on the street would indicate. Trials do not take significantly more or less time to complete than in the rest of Europe; civil cases take 350 days to complete, and criminal cases take 835. (The pre-trial phase takes 541 days on average, meaning that the trial process itself takes only 294 days.) That the pre-trial phase is especially long is not all that surprising, considering that the costs of bringing a case to trial without proper investigating beforehand would be more expensive than looking into a suspect and then dropping the case. The length of the pre-trial phase can be linked to the impressive conviction rates secured by prosecutors. Eighty percent of indictments lead to convictions, versus one percent that result in acquittals – quite an impressive ratio, but one that requires an extremely thorough pre-trial process.

Judicial Misconduct and Corruption

One of the popular opinions about the Bulgarian judiciary is that it is filled with corruption, or at least chronic unprofessionalism. And at first glance the figures might support this assumption: the Centre’s report estimated that 130,000 acts of corruption take place each month, leading to the perception that this corruption spreads to all corners of the government and adjoining bureaucracy. And though the number of cases brought to trial does not match the estimated rate of occurrence, the judiciary has brought enough cases against its own to indicate that it is serious about fighting misconduct.

The report took note of nineteen cases that had been completed by the conclusion of the Centre’s research involving judges, prosecutors and investigators. In thirteen of these cases, the Supreme Judicial Council handed down either the punishment recommended by the lower courts or a harsher sentence. Furthermore, the number of cases being brought up against judges has increased, while those against prosecutors have remained constant. The uptick in cases of misconduct is demonstrative of a judiciary that puts professionalism at the forefront.

An area that receives less attention from the courts is prosecution of corruption in other political spheres. There are certain areas that the courts rarely, if ever, prosecute (e.g. campaign finance laws). Whether this is because these laws are not being broken or because of a desire to avoid controversy is unclear, but the latter is more likely. To that end, it would behoove the courts to more actively prosecute these types of incidents.

Prosecution of Organized Crime

The area in which the Supreme Judicial Council stands to gain the most is in its prosecution of cases involving organized crime, despite the presence of such offenses. The reason appears to be that investigative services face difficulties in investigating such enterprises, leading to convictions for unrelated crimes. The judiciary appears to have had a similarly difficult time in prosecuting and securing convictions for contract killings. From 1992-2005, 173 cases of contract killings were cited; only 17 of these led to an indictment, and out of those only a handful led to an initial conviction.

Communication

As helpful as the Supreme Judiciary Council proved in offering support to the researchers at the Centre for Liberal Strategies, difficulties arose in gathering all of the requisite data for assessment. Bodies such as the Prosecutorial Office and the Supreme Administrative Court organize their own analyses, and no central body exists to handle and organize these reports. Each component part can be made sense of, but as a whole the system is not conducive to public oversight. 

Recommendations

The analysis conducted by the Centre for Liberal Strategy found that, for the most part, Bulgarians’ fears and cynicism about their judicial system were overblown, if not unfounded. However, there are still a number of ways that the Supreme Judicial Council could improve upon their success. The first is making their policies and procedures more easily available to the public; this would help to publicize the work being done by the Council and alter the view that the system is ineffective. It stands to reason that a centralized, concise source of information would do a great deal of good.

The second is to increase efforts to investigate and prosecute types of cases that are underrepresented in the legal system currently. A good deal of this effort rests on the shoulders of investigative services, but once the information has been presented it is the responsibility of the courts to build a strong case and keep pushing for convictions. No matter how effective the Supreme Judicial Council may be, the public will be more likely to extend support after a few high-level convictions are secured.

There is not much that can be done without the unwavering support of the judiciary and the legislature – the former to embrace these recommendations, and the latter to codify these changes in order to secure them for the future. Barring that, the Bulgarian judiciary may be forced to maintain its current position: hardworking and efficient, but without the respect it is due.

 

Sources

Centre for Liberal Strategies. “The Judiciary: Independent and Accountable. Indicators on the Efficiency of the Bulgarian Judicial System.” Presented April 20, 2006. http://www.cls-sofia.org/uploads/files/Projects%20files/1162302106__fina...

Ivan Krastev. Speech to Hertie School of Governance. Published March 27, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDx4urdvvw4

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