Supreme Court head speaks of threat to Ukraine’s justice system

Statement from the Head of the Supreme Court Vasyl Onopenko regarding the situation with the justice system in the county

At the present time Ukraine is facing the threat of a total breakdown of the justice system. They say that even arbitrary rule has limits. The actions and decisions with regard to the courts and judges of  the last few days have shown that many public officials and politicians recognize no bounds to their arbitrary will.

We have a situation which is more threatening than that in which we found ourselves during last year’s political crisis when Ukrainian society witnessed direct interference by various State bodies and public officials in the exercising of justice by the courts, pressure on judges, deliberate attempts to politicize and ruin the justice system, and to get the courts to pass rulings needed by particular parties, reprisals against judges for their professional activities.

At that time the destruction of the foundations of the justice system were stopped largely by judges themselves who came out decisively against the above-mentioned negative elements. The position taken by the Supreme Court, the special congress of judges of Ukraine, the Council of Judges and other bodies of judges’ self-government was definitive in averting the threat to the justice system.

The hopes that politicians and high-ranking officials would learn this harsh lesson have proven unfounded. The necessary wise conclusions in order to prevent a repetition of the period of cynical contempt for the courts by those in political power and some judges which was so terrible for the justice system and democracy have not been reached.The latest political crisis is demonstrating even more cynical and unlawful interference in the work of the judiciary, disregard for the legal foundations of the work of the justice system and the courts being dragged into the political struggle. This struggle and the methods of the parties in conflict have been transferred into a sphere off limits for politics – the justice system.

Proof of this is seen in the seizure of court premises, the blocking of its work, various forms of pressure on judges, physical and other obstruction to their work, reprisals, the liquidation of courts for political aims.  There is a particular danger in the fact that such actions are being organized and carried out by those who by their status should guarantee observance of the Constitution, the rule of law through their legislative work and manage the relevant courts on a legal basis. As a result at present the judicial system, the basis of any state, is being consciously and deliberately destroyed.

The events of recent years and the last few days demonstrate the lack of understanding from many of those holding political power in Ukraine of the axioms regarding the role and place of the court in a democratic state. The courts are the highest arbiters in resolving social conflict, the financial legal avenue and their rulings much be based on the principles of justice and legality, and not on the wish to satisfy somebody’s political, business or narrow private interests. There is no other democratic means of establishing order in the State and stability in society. Most regrettably the lack of such understanding is prompting certain people in power and politicians to unworthy political reprises against judges whose rulings do not please them. This is achieved, for example, through dismissing judges with flagrant infringements of the legally established procedure, on grounds and in a manner not envisaged in the Constitution and laws of Ukraine. One of the main guarantees for the autonomy of the courts and independence of judges aimed at ensuring a just court system – the special procedure for appointing and dismissing judges – is thus being ignored. And in fact the constitutional right of the judge to work is also being infringed.

It is not only the Ukrainian, but also the world community which cannot fail to be staggered by the ease with which some high-ranking officials and political figures are ignoring the legal basis for the justice system.  And at how far they’re prepared to go in trying to "tame" the courts, make them means for satisfying their ambitions, and judges – meek enforcers of somebody else’s will. They no longer confine themselves to political "reprises" and use of repression against specific judges, but have taken to liquidating "disobliging" courts.  We are effectively talking about the destruction of the court system as such and the usurpation of State power.  With this comes a total move away from law and introduction of arbitrary rule as State policy, the abolition of constitutional principles for the functioning of State bodies and a change to the democratic regime of State governance.  Today, for political motives, the District Administrative Court is dissolved. Tomorrow "the wrong" rulings will be passed by appellate, the higher, or Supreme Court – will they also be dissolved, and will the exercising of justice as a function of the state be abolished altogether?  Following such logic you could abolish parliament, the Government, the National Bank, or any other State body. In the final instance the position of President of Ukraine or Ukraine as a State.

Without legally established procedural and organizational possibilities for direct and effective influence over the above-mentioned negative processes, I am forced to confine myself at present to stating my deep concern over the situation which has of late developed as regards the justice system. I consider it necessary to state that:

Unlawful interference in the exercise of justice and influence on the courts, on whoever’s initiative and for what ever purpose, are unacceptable in principle.

It is however equally unacceptable for judges to pass knowingly wrongful rulings, not to speak of handing down rulings to order, regardless of their motivation.

Both one and the other destroy the justice system, the State and society as a whole.

Ensuring the functioning of the judiciary on the basis set down in Ukraine’s Constitution is an absolute condition for the proper protection of constitutional rights and freedoms, the democratic development of society and the building of a law-based state. Understanding of this should stop all those who seek to satisfy their own political and personal ends through unlawful action concerning the courts and judges. Any unlawful attempts on the justice system should receive an adequate legal assessment.

In this difficult situation for the country I would especially turn to judges on whom to a large extent not only the future of the justice system, but also that of Ukraine as a state depends. It is only via a clear and principled stand in upholding the interests of justice, the passing of just and law-based court rulings and unfaltering adherence to the law, that we can protect the court system from total destruction and ensure law and order and stability in the country. In connection with this I would like to once again stress that there is no place for politics in the courts. It is solely the law which must prevail in the courts. Judges are subordinate only to the law, do not answer to anyone and in exercising justice are independent of any influence. The laws of Ukraine set down sufficient legal immunity for judges from unlawful influence on them in connection with their work in exercising justice. The main thing is to be firm in ones lawful stand and seek to exercise justice on a legal basis.

I would at the same time once again call on the bodies of judges’ self-governance, qualifying commissions, and the whole judge corps to show no tolerance for those judges who abuse their status and powers and who with their actions and rulings politicize legal proceedings and pass knowingly wrongful and overtly politically motivated rulings. There is no place for such judges in the judiciary.

I am convinced that thanks to a well-considered legal and state position from the judges’ corps, with united efforts we will come through this time also. Despite obvious negative elements threatening the justice system, the judiciary will continue to play its proper and stabilizing role in Ukraine. Otherwise the country will face legal chaos, disorder and arbitrary rule.

Published (in Ukrainian) on the court’s official website

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