October 15, 2019 - 15:31 AMT
Armenia "should make retirement of top court judges strictly voluntary”

The large majority of proposals contained in a judicial reform package in Armenia are in line with European standards and contribute to combatting corruption without encroaching on the independence of the judiciary, concluded Council of Europe legal experts of the Venice Commission in an opinion published this week. They stressed, however, that the offer of early retirement made in the draft law to some justices of the Constitutional Court is not objectionable only if it remains strictly voluntary and if it does not hinder the effective functioning of the Constitutional Court.

"In preparing the reform, the Armenian government acted in a responsible and thoughtful manner and demonstrated openness to dialogue with all interlocutors, both within and outside the country, according to the opinion, requested last month by Armenia’s Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan," the Commission said in an emailed statement on Tuesday, October 15.

"In the light of a strong popular demand for quick and visible changes in the situation in the judiciary, the new government had started a critical examination of this branch of power. Originally its intention was to introduce extraordinary vetting procedures to check the suitability of existing judges.

"Subsequently the government refrained from a “headstrong” approach and engaged in a dialogue within Armenian society and with its international partners. As a result of this dialogue, most of the more radical reform proposals were abandoned, and the government developed more tailor-made solutions. The Venice Commission welcomes this approach and invites the government to proceed with future reforms in the same spirit of dialogue and inclusiveness."

One aspect of the proposed reform stands apart, however: an early retirement scheme proposed for Constitutional Court judges who were appointed for life under the pre-2015 version of the Constitution, say the experts. The Venice Commission notes that it is important to respect the stability of a judicial office, and that it is not acceptable if the composition of the Constitutional Court changes every time a new government comes to power. However, to the extent that the retirement remains truly voluntary and does not hinder the effective functioning of the Court, the proposed scheme is not objectionable from the standpoint of international standards, the experts conclude.

The Venice Commission has also requested other clarifications and improvements, namely a possibility to appeal decisions of the Supreme Judicial Council in disciplinary matters.