Hungary plans new courts overseen by minister, opposition cries foul

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary’s government set out plans on Tuesday to create new administrative courts overseen by the justice minister - a move the leftist opposition has said will limit the independence of the judiciary.

Hungarian Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi speaks to reporters on the sidelines of a conference on legislative issues in Budapest, Hungary, September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Krisztina Than

The courts will deal with lawsuits about government business that are currently covered in the general legal system, according to the text of a bill to set them up posted on parliament’s website. Lawmakers will debate it later this year.

The EU has criticized a series of legal measures pushed through by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, including the forced retirement of some judges. In September the European Parliament voted to impose sanctions on Hungary for flouting EU rules on democracy, civil rights and corruption. The government rejected the accusations.

Hungary’s leftist opposition Democratic Coalition party said on Monday that the new courts, proposed by the government earlier this year, would let the ministers hand pick judges to hear legal challenges to state programs.

“The government would end the independence of courts by setting up a new administrative court, in order to ensure that lawsuits against the state would land in the appropriate place, and the Orban regime would have the last say in the courts,” the leftist party said in a statement.

Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi told state TV the opposition was “scaremongering”.

In the text of the legislation, posted online on Tuesday night, he said other European countries had similar administrative courts - and the reforms would ensure the country had a “high quality of ... administrative judiciary”.

“The model will respect judges’ independence ... and at the same time will establish the justice minister’s political responsibility for the effective operation of administrative courts,” he said in the bill.

Trocsanyi said the government would seek the opinion of the Venice Commission, a panel of constitutional law experts of the human rights body Council of Europe, about the legislation.

According to the bill, the minister will invite applications to fill judges’ positions at the new courts and nominate the judges based on the proposal of a national committee of administrative judges. If the minister does not agree with the committee’s proposal, he can veto it.

The minister will also oversee the budgets of the new courts under the legislation.

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Andrew Heavens