I am honoured to be asked to say a few words at the opening of this consultation on reform in the justice sector. This reform is a big and difficult project. It will involve detailed discussions with technical, political and constitutional aspects. It will involve differences of views, difficult compromises and tough decisions. The eventual solution will have to be achieved by Albanians, to fit the Albanian environment. Of course, foreign experts can help with advice and support. But in the end the Albanian people will have to decide. So it is not my job to say what exact form the judicial reform should take. But I would like to say a few words on why I think the reform is needed.
Over the last few years, there has built up at the heart of the Albanian judiciary a clique of seriously corrupt judges. These individuals operate as a group, using the judiciary as a money-making business, buying and selling justice. They support each other when they are challenged by more honest forces in the legal world. Some are actually in positions where corrupt individuals control the appointment, transfer, promotion and discipline of other judges. They are thus enabled to pervert the entire judicial system for corrupt purposes.
Corruption in the judiciary makes it difficult to combat corrupt practices in other areas of government or society. However effective are the investigations of policemen or prosecutors, their efforts cannot reach the appropriate conclusion if the courts themselves are dishonest. Corrupt and unpredictable judges make life difficult for foreign investors and local entrepreneurs, cutting off the investment and job creation that the country desperately needs. Lack of clarity over property ownership prevents the efficient development of the tourism sector. Over the last couple of years, we have seen corrupt judges even obstruct efforts by the police to take forward necessary social reforms such as improvements in traffic discipline and prevention of the carrying of weapons in public. The international fight against drug trafficking and organised crime has been impeded.
The European Commission has identified corruption in the judiciary as the No 1 obstacle to progress towards Albanian accession to the European Union. Without judicial reform, the accession process will be blocked indefinitely. There is no way that any Member State, however sympathetic to Albania’s European aspirations, could support serious progress on accession with an unreformed judiciary.
So a small group of people, perhaps less than a hundred, is poisoning Albania’s political, social and economic environment and holding back the future of an entirenation. In an ideal situation, the judiciary would find within itself the impetus and motive for reform. It would purge itself of the corrupt elements without the need for political or other external pressure. The most corrupt figures in the judiciary are operating in broad daylight, without even hiding their activities. They boast of the wealth they have extracted by buying and selling justice, selling court decisions as easily as a market trader sells a sack of potatoes. Their names are known to the public.
But unfortunately the judicial system has not proved capable of cleaning its own house. The mechanisms to do so do not seem to exist. Honest men and women in the judiciary can only watch helplessly as the situation deteriorates and the public reputation of the courts gets worse. Any attempt to address the problem is met with the cry of judicial independence. But judicial independence does not mean impunity: even the senior judiciary are not above the law.
A tough and rigorous investigation into the rule of law in Albania has therefore become unavoidable. My government strongly supports the initiative of Prime Minister Edi Rama to launch a process of judicial reform. The reform process, led by Mr Fatmir Xhafaj, has, we believe, correctly identified the problems in the different branches of the legal sector. The next step is to propose and debate the legislative and institutional reforms involved. The final process will be to implement them effectively. The objective is to create a new, more honest, more efficient legal reality in this country. The aim must be to rebuild the trust of the public in the judiciary and the Albanian justice system as a whole.
Real reform must have an end stage. It should not be rushed so that too many mistakes are made. But it cannot be debated indefinitely. So it is important to maintain momentum in this process. Now is the time for thorough judicial reform in Albania. The public want it. Albania’s international position demands it. As Gorbachev said of the Russian reforms, “If not us, who ? If not now, when ?”.
It is important that this reform is built on the widest possible consensus of political opinion and institutional support. I therefore hope that the parties of the opposition will join their legal expertise to this process. There is room for debate and disagreement. Mistakes no doubt have been made and will be made. It is easier to correct them when there is a variety of political opinions involved in the process.
But while the detail of the reform should be open to dispute and amendment, nobody should expect a veto over the whole process. Nor should support for judicial reform be withheld for political reasons not related to the reform itself. This is an issue of national seriousness and all must play their part in addressing it.
This process will undoubtedly require a rebalancing between the different institutions with roles in the legal sector. So this means constitutional change. Those of us who spend our lives in particular institutions are often uneasy about change and keen to protect our roles and powers. That is understandable. Those working inside institutions are often best placed to see the possible unpredicted impacts of change. But those inside institutions need to be careful not to find themselves just protecting vested interests. Genuine reform has losers as well as winners: it is always painful. If there are no losers and no pain, then it is not a real reform. If reform is purely cosmetic or just replaces one group of crooks with another group, the public will know and the internationals will know, and they will know who to blame.
Mr Xhafaj and his teams have diagnosed the diseases in the body of the Albanian legal system. They now need to plan their intervention, with the widest possible base of expertise and support. Then they need to operate, carefully but boldly, to remove the toxic elements from the system with minimum wider damage. Then they need to make sure that the disease cannot return.
It is important for Albania, and Albania in Europe, that this process goes well.