Croatian citizens' impression of judicial independence has been falling since 2016 and is among the lowest in the EU, the Supreme Court said on Wednesday in a comment on a European Commission 2021 rule-of-law report.
According to the report, there are two basic reasons for the poor impression – interference or pressure by the government and politicians, but also by economic and other special interest groups, the Court said.
Those problems, according to the Commission, can be solved with detailed polls among stakeholders in the justice system which would examine and determine the reasons for such a low perception of independence of the judiciary, the Court said, adding that the last such poll was conducted in 2015.
The report notes that the ongoing appointment of a new Supreme Court President has caused disputes and fierce debates between the highest state representatives, and that it often included disparaging public statements against judges, the Supreme Court said.
The report highlights that the Constitutional Court stressed the importance of cooperation between state authorities, and that it is necessary to authorise an independent and expert body, whose members would mainly come from the judiciary, which would give opinions based on which the body in charge of appointments would act in practice in order to make the procedure more objective, restricting the executive authority’s freedom in those appointments, the Court said.
It mentioned the report’s note that the judicial authority, including the State Judicial Council, had taken significant steps to clear up allegations on ethical breaches by judges, disciplinary action and corruption in the justice system.
“An anti-corruption strategy is being drawn up but there is a shortage of specialised investigators and state attorneys in high-level anti-corruption criminal cases. The legislative framework for combating corruption has yet to be reformed,” the Supreme Court said, adding that high-level corruption investigation and prosecution trends remain positive but that lengthy proceedings could be expected.
Asset declarations of judges and state attorneys have been published and additional resources have been ensured for checking them, the Court said.
E-communication among weakest in EU
The Commission’s report shows that the use of e-communication tools in courts is gradually increasing but that it is among the least developed in the EU, the Supreme Court said.
The report shows that the publication of verdicts remains very limited and that a prerequisite to improve that is upgrading the e-spis system, it added.
The report notes that improvements have been made in reducing proceedings and backlogs, notably in courts of second instance, but that the pandemic and last year’s earthquakes delayed hearings at courts of first instance in parts of the country, which extended proceedings, the Supreme Court said.