Still at risk: The status of the Hungarian judiciary

Despite the changes at the top of the administrative body of the Hungarian judiciary after the former controversial leader stepped down, systematic problems and weaknesses concerning the independence and impartiality of the judiciary remain at place – as Amnesty International Hungary’s new briefing explains. The document provides updates and insights as to the status of the judiciary in Hungary and the perceived independence and impartiality of the courts and summarizes the main developments from 2020.

The Status of the Hungarian Judiciary documents that the Hungarian government has made no attempt to rectify the situation and that the unbalanced powers of the President of the National Judiciary Office (NJO) continue to undermine the independence of the judiciary – despite the repeated calls from various European institutions and civil society organisations. The newly elected President of the NJO has taken a different approach than his predecessor, rather picking public fights with the self-governing body of the judges (National Judiciary Council, NJC), he tends to be significantly less confrontational in his communication which was welcomed by the judges who Amnesty interviewed during the research.

However, Amnesty concluded that solely a personal change at the top of the courts’ administration and thus the reduction of the tensions between the two judicial bodies, does not address the main problems. The imbalance of power that still exists between them, leaving the independence of the judiciary at risk.

Political and media attacks on the Hungarian judiciary continued in 2020, which negatively affected judicial independence. The NJO President was inconsistent when it came to publicly condemning media and political attacks against courts or judges: in some cases, he chose to speak up in the defence of the judiciary vis-à-vis some political actors, but in others declined to do so vis-à-vis others, casting doubt on the impartiality of the office.

The leaders of the Hungarian judiciary overwhelmingly remained silent during these attacks, and thus have contributed to the chilling effect of such attacks on the judiciary: ordinary judges have been afraid of freely expressing their opinion and stating their positions in matters related to the judiciary because of fear of retaliation at their workplace or in public.

The atmosphere at courts and the chilling effect continues to be problematic despite a few positive developments. The NJO President has not supported judges to express their opinion on any issues publicly and the President’s inconsistent approach in initiating investigations against court leaders has harmed the perceived independence and impartiality of the judiciary – raising questions both internally and externally.

One of the main concerns with respect to judicial independence, is around the newly appointed President of the Kúria (Hungary’s supreme court) who was elected by the governing majority of Parliament for 9 years and who was only eligible as candidate thanks to two recent legal amendments that paved the way for his election by widening the pool of eligible candidates. 

The self-governing body of the judges – providing their non-binding opinion – voted 13-1 against the candidate since he had never been practising as a judge and has no experience in judicial administration. Additionally, in December the Parliament adopted several amendments that further strengthen the powers of the President of the Kúria – raising further questions about the possible future role of Hungary’s highest ordinary court and its effect on the independence of the justice system.