Reform of court system
[b]The judicial system of Belarus is changing, with general and economic courts uniting under a uniform system of general jurisdiction courts from 1st January 2014. The Supreme Court is to head the new system of economic courts from the regions and Minsk, which will continue to function under their current specialisations. The President signed the 2nd Edict and the Decree formalising the reform at the end of November. [/b]
The latest reform of the law-enforcement sphere involves advocacy bodies and the powers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor’s Office. Last year, the Investigative Committee launched, with success; it discussed the need for an improved court system, including the operation of judicial bodies, at its recent November session. The President of Belarus emphasised that reform has a clear goal; it is not change for its own sake or for the purpose of copying the ideas of neighbouring countries.
Naturally, the well-being of society and individuals relies largely on the state of affairs in this sensitive sphere. Many significant questions are solved in court, deciding the destinies of people, the financial health of enterprises and mediating in cases of dispute. Though noticeable improvements have appeared in the work of courts in recent years, a number of problems remain. Judges’ workloads have decreased and new methods are improving the quality, efficiency and availability of justice but we lack uniformity of application by general and current economic courts. Moreover, it can be difficult to identify the jurisdiction of specific disputes. Multiplicity of processes and differences in the application of justice complicate matters: general courts apply a classical form of law while economic courts use arbitration. The majority of Post-Soviet countries have already included economic courts in the general judicial system.
The improvement of the judicial system in Belarus was discussed several years ago but found form in 2013, with the creation of an interdepartmental working group considering how best to unify general and economic courts. The issue is being analysed from the point of view of judges at all levels, led by the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, Valery Mitskevich. He notes that transformations will not require additional staff or budgetary expenditure. He tells us, “We can embody the best and most progressive achievements of general and economic courts, accelerating the use of information technologies into our activity and taking a unified judicial system to a totally new, higher level of functioning.”
The Chairman of the Supreme Court, Mr. Sukalo, notes that an overwhelming majority of countries, including post-Soviet states and those of the Customs Union, are developing specialised courts within a uniform judicial system — with one superior court co-ordinating and directing judicial policy and judiciary practice. He said, “Such is the construction of judicial systems in most European states: a unified system of courts of general jurisdiction and economic courts, with one supreme court at the head, one plenum and one presidium. This, certainly, would form a uniform, clear, distinct judiciary, with uniform, classical forms of justice and uniform status for all judicial authorities.” He believes that change would be supported by the whole judiciary.
Organisational, material and personnel approaches are also under review. Until recently, economic courts solved these issues independently, while general courts were supported by the Ministry of Justice at regional and district level. Now, the judicial administration will be unified and all corresponding powers concerning courts of general jurisdiction transferred from the Ministry of Justice to the Supreme Court. The latter will be completely responsible for all questions concerning the functioning of the system, from delivery of justice to the material and technical support of courts. Chairs of regional courts will have additional duties connected with such matters as repair of premises and disposition of funds, solving financial and personnel questions more effectively.
Another innovation involves bodies of enforcement being subordinate to government executive bodies. From 1st January 2014, enforcement will be co-ordinated by the Ministry of Justice, served by central administrative boards of justice of regional executive committees. Local authorities will oversee regional governing bodies of enforcement and regional departments of enforcement.
Court — one for all
From 1st July 2014, another stage of reform will begin, with the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court and military courts abolished. Their powers will pass to regional, district and city courts of general jurisdiction, bringing a uniform approach for civilians and the military. This will exclude the possibility of departmental influence, ensuring independence and impartiality of judges.
The issue of military courts arose during discussion of judicial reform, with the President clear in his opinion, saying, “I think it best to act in the same way with military courts as we do with economic courts. Why do we have special structures for those wearing shoulder markings? A major should not try a major. All should be in one set of hands: one court for all citizens.”
Our past left a legacy of specialised military courts, which have already been abolished in most former Soviet states. Common practise has also been to reduce armies and the number of military crimes. Belarus is now following suit, with its 30 military judges receiving civil status and working in regional and district courts. The President emphasises the rationality of the move, explaining, “Our country is compact, so having several structures in the same direction is not rational. We can govern this system from one centre, and will soon see cohesion, acting in one direction. There will be no disagreements in decision-making.”
According to Mr. Sukalo, reform of the judicial system will be smooth and won’t affect the process of justice.
By Lilia Khlystun