European legal panel indicates it could lift objections to Hungary court changes

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A European panel of constitutional law experts indicated on Monday it could lift objections to a new Hungarian court system, if Hungary passes amendments presented to parliament last week that would safeguard judicial independence.

Changes to Hungary’s judiciary proposed by the nationalist ruling Fidesz party have been at the heart of a confrontation with the European Union, which says some of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s reforms threaten democracy and the rule of law.

Fidesz has said it will accept the advice of the Venice Commission, a panel of constitutional law experts set up to advise European countries as part of the Council of Europe rights body.

The Venice Commission strongly criticized a law that Hungary passed last year to set up a separate system of administrative courts to handle cases about government business. But it said on Monday that a series of changes proposed in response to its criticism would resolve many of the problems.

“Amendments pending before Parliament and constructively supported by (Justice) Minister (Laszlo) Trocsanyi would make a considerable part of criticism moot,” Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio said in a tweet on Monday.

“I hope that our recommendations will be followed,” he said.

Trocsanyi responded in a tweet, saying: “I am convinced, that the dialogue between the Hungarian Government and the Venice Commission was a success”, and adding that he hoped lawmakers would approve the planned modifications.

Under last year’s law, the justice minister would have wide leeway in appointing judges and overseeing the budgets of courts that will take over the handling of cases related to public procurement, taxation and elections.

The Commission said that under the initial law, “very extensive powers are concentrated in the hands of a few stakeholders, and there are no effective checks and balances to counteract those powers”.

It has recommended several changes, including stricter legal supervision of the recruitment process for administrative judges, and more oversight of the minister’s decisions. Many of those recommendations were incorporated in amendments submitted to parliament last week.

Hungary itself had requested the Venice Commission to issue an opinion on the legislation and said it was ready to make changes to the legislation if required.

In September the European Parliament voted to impose sanctions on Hungary for flouting European Union rules on democracy, civil rights and corruption. Hungary rejected the accusations.

Reporting by Gergely Szakacs and Sandor Peto; Editing by Peter Graff