On the midnight of 22 July 2016, after seven hours of negotiations, the Albanian Parliament adopted unanimously the justice reform, strongly backed by EU and US. This was considered an historical moment for the democratization and rule of law of the country, raising expectations on the cleaning up of the judicial system and advancement of the European perspective.
Four years later, the justice reform’s success (on paper) has been widely appraised by the government and international partners. While in practice it has still remained an illusion, without succeeding to unleash its potential. The slow advancement of the reform implementation has directly affected the correct functioning of the judicial bodies, witnessing today several vacancies. Whereas the ongoing re-evaluation process (vetting) has led to a bottleneck in the justice system, followed by collateral damages in other related spheres.
Internally the justice reform has been rather politicized, and subject to ongoing political influence and interference. In presence of fierce polarization and political and institutional crisis, the rhetorics of the political parties on the reform implementation has been marked by confrontation and mutual charges on who is seeking to ‘capture the reform’ for its own interests.
A first hostage remains the Constitutional Court, followed by the High Court, where both are paralysed because of a lack of judges. The latter’s appointments constitute a delicate issue for Albania’s overall political dynamics. Once functional, the Constitutional Court will have to articulate on a number of hot political dossiers, such as for instance the vicious circle created on the constitutionality of the 2019 local elections, where the ruling party run alone, or the ruling party’s initiative to dismiss the President, alleged for arbitrary conduct and violation of the Constitution when deciding to postpone the 2019 local elections. The functioning of the Constitutional Court and High Court constitute also one of the 15 conditions delineated by the European Council on Albania’s starting of the accession negotiations.
In the meantime, the re-evaluation of judges and prosecutors is going on and some contestations have been raised on alleged subjective assessments, particularly by the dismissed persons. Some evidence shows that the vetting bodies have been put under pressure due to the need to deliver the first concrete results, affecting therefore the time at their disposal to thoroughly investigate on the judges’/prosecutors’ profiles. If proved to be true, in a longer run the contestations risk to put under question the credibility of this re-evaluation process.
In this regard, a precedent is marked by the case of a single judge of the Special Appellate Chamber, who is currently under investigation for falsification of documents.
During his vetting process, the judge had omitted to declare the received disciplinary measures (dismissal on grounds of incompetence) back in 1997. This fact did not emerge during his re-evaluation and became of public dominion only recently. The Special Appellate Chamber is composed of vetted judges and is tasked to review the appeals of dismissed judges/prosecutors from the re-evaluation process. If the mentioned judge is found guilty, then the pandora box might open up for all those cases in which he has been part of the appeal judgements. In turn, this would mark another delay in the completition of the reform.
The coinciding political and technical challenges faced during this reform implementation have led to a growing number of dossiers’ backlog, on which the courts need to take a decision. The citizens, as final beneficiaries of the reform, have not had yet the opportunity to get justice, witnessing so a constant delay on their cases and diluting hopes. The never-ending judicial proceedings, coupled with insufficient number of judges and random attempts of corruption, have led to more than 92,600 cases still in the courts’ waiting room.
In this regard, the vetting process seems to have not been accompanied with a well-thought plan on the refilling in of the positions covered by the dismissed judges during the reforming period. The Courts of Appeal have been particularly affected by the re-evaluation process and time is still needed in order to have the new corpus of judges in place, and even more time and patience is asked to the citizens to see their cases resolved.
Overall, Albania today finds itself in front of a difficult rule of law situation, where justice is still in a ‘wanted’ mood and homegrown political problems risk to further undermine the reform’s expected results, besides the fragile state of democracy. Over the past years, the reform’s low hanging fruits have been served to the wider audience, like the number of vetted persons or dismissed ones, and the prospects of a ‘justice waiting fatigue’ are coming to surface. There is an urgent need for a real long-term political vision on ensuring effective justice in Albania and this should take place within the state institutions.
This text has been prepared within the project “Strengthening the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Old Tools for New Rules” implemented by Politikon Network, in cooperation with Centre for Contemporary Politics, and with the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.