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Hungary drops plans for new courts

May 30, 2019

The plans for administrative courts have been at the center of the confrontation between the nationalist, ruling Fidesz party and the European Union. Critics said they would give too much power to the justice minister.

Hungary's Supreme Court
Image: Imago/V. Preußer

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff said the launch of the new administrative court system would be suspended.

"The government will initiate the indefinite suspension of the launch of the administrative court system," Gergely Gulyas, Orban's chief of staff, said at a news conference on Thursday.

He defended the plans but admitted the pressure from the EU led the government to alter its position

"We believe that the law meets European standards and rule-of-law requirements," he said. "However, the administrative court system has been caught up in debates in Europe, which have unjustifiably called judicial independence into question."

The plan had been to set up a separate system of administrative courts, with its own Supreme Administrative Court and National Administrative Judicial Council. 

Gulyas said there was no link between the decision, which he described as a "last-minute measure" before judges were appointed, and the ruling party's suspension from the European People's Party (EPP) in the European Parliament in March.

"This should improve Hungary's position within the EU," Gulyas said. He did not rule out dropping the new system altogether. 

Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Prime Minister Viktor OrbanImage: Reuters/B. Szabo

Responding to the EU

The Hungarian government had passed a law in late 2018 for new courts to be directly overseen by the justice minister taking cases on government business including taxation and elections. Those are currently dealt with by Hungary's main legal system.

The plans were criticized by the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe made up of independent experts on constitutional law. It provides EU states with legal advice in the form of legal opinions on draft legislation or legislation already in force. In March it said that the laws on administrative courts lacked effective checks and balances.

The Commission said the major drawback was that "very extensive powers" were concentrated in the hands of a few stakeholders, and there were "no effective checks and balances to counteract those powers."

Hungary had already made some changes to the court plans in light of the commission's advice ahead of the decision announced on Thursday. 

Rights groups had gone further in their criticism of the new courts, suggesting they were a serious threat to the rule of law in Hungary.

jm/sms (Reuters, AFP)

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