Dear Ms. Margherita Morelli,
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen from the European Network of Associations of Lay Judges,
It is my pleasure to provide information on the training of lay judges in Bulgaria.
I believe that we, lay judges, are essential for the justice system, particularly in countries such as Bulgaria where most citizens do not have confidence in judges and public prosecutors.
It is we, lay judges, who can and should be the link between the public and the members of the judiciary.
Dear fellow members of the ENALJ, before I get down to the matter at hand, let me dwell on two issues relating to lay judges that are quite important in the Bulgarian context, in the hope that you can assist us with some advice and suggestions.
Firstly, lay judges in Bulgaria are screened primarily by municipal councils, i.e. by local parliaments. That leads to political party quotas in the court panels, which breaches the principle of separation of powers since two-thirds, i.e. the majority, of the panel of judges that hears criminal cases as a court of first instance can be dependent on the political parties whose representatives in the local parliaments elected those lay judges. That is particularly dangerous in the case of legal action brought against a politician and the panel that would hear his or her case happens to include lay judges who are closely connected to a party that opposes that politician, in a seemingly ‘random’ manner.
In addition, since parties in the local parliaments tend to invite people that are close to them, promoting the activity of lay judges is not in the best interest of those people; hence, most members of the public are not aware of our role. The justices do not respect us, either. They perceive the post of a lay judge as a sinecure position, since many lay judges tend to become ‘yes-men’, rather than make up their own mind.
Secondly, the rates that lay judges are paid in Bulgaria is insultingly low. For eight to ten court sessions per month, a lay judge earns a humiliating amount of BGN 100 or thereabout. That is a joke. Dear colleagues, there is no way to get ambitious people at an active age interested in joining a Bulgarian court-of-law. The maximum eligible age for lay judges has now been raised from 65 to 68 because most often it is retirees who become lay judges. Dear colleagues, it turned out that we, lay judges, are more precious that justices. I am writing this ironically but it is true de jure. Court judges in Bulgaria must retire at the age of 65 (except for judges in the Constitutional Court, who, regardless of their age, serve a nine-year term, and cannot be re-elected), while currently one can become a lay judge as long as he or she is not older than 68. And the cut-off age will need to go up, unless we begin to motivate people of an active age to become lay judges. However, there is no way that those people would take time off their gainful jobs that earn them the money to feed their children, in exchange for a hundred levs or so per month, plus the floating working hours that involves. Let me give you an example. You have a hearing at 11 a.m. and another one starting at 3:30 p.m. If the first session starts half an hour late, and the other one has a one-hour delay, when could you get any other work done? And what employer would tolerate that? Indeed, under the relevant law, employers must give us time off to serve in a hearing, but they are not obliged to do that when we need the time in order to read a case file (which is done on a date that is different from the day on which the hearing is scheduled, before the case file is collected by the court clerk). All that results in the following: lay judges who have no idea what the case is about agreeing with the judge all the time. What is the point of having them on the panel, then? Not to mention that a judge would often rush through a case, together with the prosecutor’s office and the counsel for the defence, by striking an agreement that may not necessarily be in the public interest (for instance, a recidivist who, in a day or two, will steal and/or rape again), yet the lay judges fail to react because they do not know that they have the right to dissent. But then, many do not even know that they have the right to familiarise themselves with the case file.
Why is that?
Because they do not wish to know. As simple as that.
As I mentioned above, the people who choose to become lay judges are mostly retired persons, or unemployed people who have friends or relatives that are close to political parties, and they suggest the idea in a desire to help them make a buck or two on the side each month. Let me stress that that I do not discriminate against anyone because of his or her age. My role model is the 88-year- old US Senator Dianne Feinstein, who works hard all the time. While, in our case, we often see ladies of a respectable old age exchanging gossip in the corridors and failing to perform their duties.
Training for lay judges in Bulgaria is up to standard. In general, I personally am strongly against distance learning. As a university student about to complete my degree in July, I have suffered a year and a half of inadequate education on Zoom. And both as a student and as a lay judge, I have always done my work diligently, never missing a class or a case, never running late. I feel insulted if, through no fault of mine, I cannot learn well.
Well, we, lay judges, can learn, if we want to. The Bulgarian National Institute for Justice (NIJ) has done an outstanding job. Their on-line training is marvellous.
The subject matter is delivered in a language that is understandable; you can immediately grasp your rights, your obligations. In a succinct, easily memorable way, the training course presents the path of a court case, the functions of the judiciary bodies and, most importantly, the existence of the presumption of innocence in the Bulgarian Constitution, which, unfortunately, is often forgotten in the media discourse.
I am deeply impressed by the NIJ team. Each reading material is accompanied by a presentation and an evaluation test. (The test is mostly assessing moral sense, since the position of a lay judge has a fixed term, and they cannot be dismissed for lack of diligence on the job.)
I believe that if every lay judge makes the bona fide effort to follow the NIJ training course, there would be no lay judges who do NOT know if the case file should be read and where they can do so, what is the meaning of ‘mitigating’ and ‘aggravating’ circumstances, and so on.
However, if one is not conscientious enough to perform up to standard as a lay judge, no one can force them to prepare.
Dear colleagues, come September, I have decided to hold a conference on the future of lay judges in Bulgaria. I would be very happy to see you there. I would be honoured, brothers and sisters lay judges, if we all work united to develop further this legal figure.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Mimo Garcia, Lay Judge