Minister of Justice Desislava Ahladova: Our goal is flexibility, public oversight of judiciary's work

Video conferencing and e-justice allow for optimisation of the time and expenses for completing pretrial and trial proceedings

The plan's Judicial System section envisions measures aimed at completing judicial reform regarding the post of prosecutor general and bringing its level of accountability and criminal liability in line with the position of the Venice Commission and the existing constitutional framework; improving the functioning and independence of the Inspectorate to the Supreme Judicial Council; discontinuing public access to magistrates' filed declarations of membership in professional organisations; improving access to justice, etc.

Minister Ahladova, what measures in the field of the judicial system have been identified and adopted since the first common European report on the rule of law?

On 4 November, the Council of Ministers adopted a plan addressing the conclusions of the 30 September European Commission report on the rule of law. The measures it laid out were proposed by relevant institutions from the executive and judicial branches of power as well as independent bodies. They have all been posted on the public consultations portal for input from citizens or other stakeholders.

The plan's Judicial System section envisions measures aimed at completing judicial reform regarding the post of prosecutor general and bringing its level of accountability and criminal liability in line with the position of the Venice Commission and the existing constitutional framework; improving the functioning and independence of the Inspectorate to the Supreme Judicial Council; discontinuing public access to magistrates' filed declarations of membership in professional organisations; improving access to justice, etc. As for combating corruption, the plan contains measures designed to boost the effectiveness of probing crimes of corruption and reaching final verdicts.

Issues around media freedom will be featured as a priority in the upcoming National Development Programme Bulgaria 2030. Issues linked to protecting journalists from attacks, improving transparency of government advertising distribution, and concentration of media ownership, will be put to public debate. Increasing the resources and capacity of the Council of Electronic Media is also on the table. On the list of proposals is introducing an impact assessment requirement for subordinate legislation drafted by ministers, which can be expected to have economic, social or ecological implications. Expanding the resources of the Commission for Protection against Discrimination and those of the ombudsman is also part of the plan.

How did meetings with representatives of the Venice Commission go? What did the Ministry of Justice report?

Our conversations with the Venice Commission rapporteurs took place in response to National Assembly Speaker Tsveta Karayancheva's request for expert assistance on the new constitution proposed by GERB in August. We discussed the proposed amendments aimed at upholding the standards of judicial system independence. It is crucially important that reforms implemented in the country continue to be based on the conclusions of the Venice Commission and the anti-corruption monitoring body GRECO (The Group of States against Corruption) with the Council of Europe, while keeping in mind the EC recommendations.

Bulgaria appreciates the Venice Commission for responding to our request on such short notice. I would like to express my satisfaction with our longtime constructive cooperation, which has always benefited Bulgaria's efforts to reform its institutions in line with international democratic standards and principles of the constitutional state.

Bulgarian lawmakers have approved changes to the Code of Civil Procedure (CCP). What is your take on those?

The latest changes to the CCP, whose final provisions envision amendments to the Code of Administrative Procedure (CAP) and the Code of Penal Procedure (CPP), create legal framework for the use of video conferencing in civil and administrative court proceedings and expand the scope of its use in criminal court proceedings. The legislation provides for the use of video conferencing in conducting interrogations and hearings and in oral arguments made by both sides in civil and administrative cases where the administrative body, the court staff or the witnesses, experts, parties to the case, interpreters, are physically in different locations across the country. There was no such legal framework until now. We are expanding the opportunities to use video conferencing in various steps of investigating and in the instances where the individuals involved in the pretrial or trial proceedings are in different locations in the country or abroad so that authorities engaged in pretrial proceedings and courts alike can have more flexibility in investigating and hearing criminal cases. Video conferencing will optimise the time for completing pretrial and trial proceedings and reduce expenses incurred in the process of ensuring that all involved are present in the courtroom, including expenditure by related bodies such as the Ministry of Interior, Directorate-General “Administering of Punishments” and Directorate-General “Security” with the Ministry of Justice.

Do you anticipate the introduction of e-justice to streamline trial proceedings?

Recently, we published for the purposes of public discussion a package of legislative proposals for amending and supplementing the CCP and CPP, in connection with the introduction of e-justice. Those mainly concern regulating the electronic exercising of procedural rights. The changes to the CCP lay out rules for serving notifications and subpoenas to an e-mail, paying fees and other financial obligations to the court online and taking procedural action in electronic form. With the changes to the CPP, we propose that court decisions are presented in electronic form and that the option for online notification of the victims over the course of the case be introduced as well as online serving of subpoenas, notifications and papers to defendants; witnesses; claimants and prosecutors that are private citizens or entities; civil lawsuit plaintiffs and civil lawsuit defendants, while in the case of the criminal defence lawyer and their client - only if they consent to receiving them. The legislation allows for notifications for a committed crime to be sent electronically, as long as they are signed with qualified electronic signatures. During hearings to decide on restrictive measures, the defendant will be allowed to participate via video conferencing in the event of a declared state of national emergency, a natural disaster, an epidemic and other force majeure scenarios or in the presence of a written consent provided by the defendant or their lawyer. Furthermore, the victims will be able to choose to receive electronically notifications about new developments over the course of the case. The goal is maximum level of transparency. Every citizen should be able to follow how their case file or court case is progressing and find out where it is being held up and why. This option will create new methods of administrative and public oversight of the judicial system's work.

What types of cases do you think will be most positively impacted?

E-justice will have widest application in civil and administrative cases. Expanding the use of video conferencing in criminal cases will mean that it will be used not only at the court's discretion, but in the presence of serious considerations to avoid physical proximity between the perpetrator and the victim. Conducting court proceedings online is introduced, while issuing court rulings in an electronic form gets regulated. The launched online legal case will contain all the electronic documents and information created or provided by each side of the dispute as well as the judicial authorities in relation to exercised procedural rights or verification statements, all electronic documents, pieces of evidence and other data processed by the court as part of the case.

Under one of the changes, fees will be cut by 15% if the lawsuit is filed online. How will that affect, the judicial system's budget?

By reducing court fees for civil lawsuits when requests for protection or assistance are made in an electronic form, the filing of initiating documents online will be incentivised, as the parties involved will pay less in court fees and save time by not having to visit the court buildings. More widespread use of online serving of documents will significantly speed up the time it takes to hear a case, as servings will be done on the same day the paperwork is sent out.

Since March, the country has been in an unprecedented situation. How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting the operations of the Ministry of Justice?

The Covid-19 pandemic is a global issue. It has changed not only the personal worldviews of all of us, but the agenda of every democratic government as well. One of the important steps in our response is e-government, and the Bulgarian cabinet needs to make sure that measures formulated in that area progress on schedule. The Ministry of Justice is making efforts to meet the public's expectations for the introduction of new e-services. For the past two weeks now, citizens have had the ability to request and receive certificates of (lack) of a criminal record on their smartphone, via a cloud-based qualified electronic signature. If you are a Bulgarian citizen without criminal record, irrespective of where you live, and you have the necessary registration, you can use your phone and request and receive this certificate in a bilingual form, Bulgarian and English, which you can then use before every public institution, private organisation or association in Bulgaria or abroad. We have also introduced an option for reducing the time you have to wait your turn to file applications and attend interviews for changing your citizenship by providing additional available hours in the automated information system of Directorate “Bulgarian Citizenship”.

In a time of pandemic, we have managed to successfully complete several projects, part of the gradual introduction of e-justice in Bulgaria. Several months ago, the video conferencing system became operational in 20 court houses across the country, housing a total of 56 courts, and in six correctional facilities. The Centralised Mediation Online Portal was launched at the end of July - a procedure with promising future that we expect a growing number of people to turn to for quick and effective out-of-court dispute resolution. We are actively working on some projects of great importance to citizens and businesses. One of them is the introduction of a Single Entry Point to the Registry Agency for submitting annual financial statements and annual reports on the operations of legal and natural persons. Single Entry Point will integrate databases and allow a comprehensive use of the data compiled by the National Statistical Institute, the National Revenue Agency and the Registry Agency. In this way, applicants will no longer have to file their statements and reports with three different institutions. Under the legislative changes approved by the National Assembly, those documents will be submitted electronically and without fees, starting January 2022.

Close-up

Desislava Ahladova has a master's degree in law from the South-West University “Neofit Rilski” in Blagoevgrad. She started her career in 1999 as a junior judge at District Court Pernik. Starting in 2000, she served consecutively as a regional judge, a deputy administrative supervisor and a chairperson of Regional Court Pernik. In May 2017 she was elected administrative supervisor of Administrative Court Pernik. From 2017 until 2020 she served as deputy minister of justice. On 3 September 2020, she was confirmed as minister of justice by the 44th National Assembly. Ahladova speaks English and Russian. She is married and a mother of one.

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