Hungary: disciplinary action against judge for recourse to EU Court must cease

The ICJ today called on the Hungarian authorities to desist from instigating disciplinary proceedings threatened against Judge Csaba Vasvári, a judge of the Central District Court of Pest and a member of the Hungarian National Judicial Council.

The imminent threat of disciplinary action is a consequence of a preliminary reference Judge Vasvári made to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

“Judge Vasvári faces disciplinary action as a direct result of his request for a preliminary ruling of the Court of Justice of the EU on the very question of judicial independence in Hungary. This is an extremely concerning attempt to interfere with the independence of a judge in discharging his judicial function which, if it proceeds any further, will set a dangerous precedent.” said Róisín Pillay, Director of the ICJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme.

A motion to begin disciplinary proceedings against Judge Vasvári was brought by the Acting President of the Budapest Regional Court in October, following Judge Vasvári’s request in criminal proceedings before him last July, for a preliminary ruling the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) under Article 267 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

In the request to the CJEU, Judge Vasvári raised questions regarding compliance with the principle of judicial independence under Article 19.1 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU), in particular the appointment procedures for court presidents, and remuneration for judges, as well as questions regarding the right to interpretation in court.

Following a decision of the Hungarian Supreme Court in September that the reference was contrary to Hungarian law since it was irrelevant to the case, disciplinary action against judge Vasvári was sought on the grounds that in making the reference, he violated the requirement to conduct himself with dignity and refrain from action which would undermine the dignity of the judiciary.

The motion for disciplinary proceedings is now expected to be considered by a panel of the Service Court, which will decide if disciplinary proceedings will commence.

“The actions of Judge Vasvári in making a preliminary reference to the CJEU were an entirely legitimate exercise of his judicial functions in accordance with EU law. It is essential that judges are able to use all appropriate judicial avenues to address and uphold the rule of law, including to protect the right to a fair trial and the independence of the judiciary” said Róisín Pillay. “It is also necessary for the proper application of EU law, that judges are able refer questions to the CJEU under Article 267 of the Treaty without undue hindrance.”

The ICJ recalls that under international standards on the independence of the judiciary, judges must decide matters before them impartially, without any restrictions, improper influences, inducements, pressures, threats or interferences, direct or indirect, from any quarter or for any reason (Principle 2, UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary). Council of Europe Recommendation CM/Rec (2010) 12 of the Committee of Ministers specifies that “the interpretation of the law, assessment of facts or weighing of evidence carried out by judges to determine cases should not give rise to civil or disciplinary liability, except in cases of malice and gross negligence.”

The UN Basic Principles on the Independence of Judiciary (principle 8) also affirm that “members of the judiciary are like other citizens entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly; provided, however, that in exercising such rights, judges shall always conduct themselves in such a manner as to preserve the dignity of their office and the impartiality and independence of the judiciary.”

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