At Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace, the government managed to give life back to the judicial reform project. From left to right, Mauricio Fajardo, president of the State Council, Camilo Tarquino, president of the Supreme Court; Angelino Lizcano, president of the Supreme Judicial Council, the President Juan Manuel Santos, the ministers Germán Vargas and Juan Carlos Esguerra, and Senator Luis Fernando Velasco.


The justice 'shake up'

What are the good, the bad and the ugly parts of the judicial reform big agreement.

10 de octubre de 2011

The government managed to give life back to the judicial reform project, the most important of the legislature, which was about to sink until last Wednesday. The agreement that revitalized the project took place in the Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace, where the presidents of the high courts and several congressmen came at the request of the president Juan Manuel Santos. That was how the initiative managed to be approved in the congress on Thursday morning in its first of eight debates. The question now is what kind of judicial reform, product of this agreement, was the one presented in the Congress.

One of the main goals of the initiative is to achieve justice efficiency, to accomplish it, the decongestion of the trial proceedings is necessary. About this point there is consensus. Both notaries and lawyers will have jurisdiction in minor cases, but they will not be able to collect evidence or to adjudicate criminal proceedings. In order to strengthen justice’s independence, several adjustments will be made: In first place, the budget for the judicial branch, which is currently of 1,43 percent of the General Budget of the Nation, will pass to a figure close to 3 percent. In second place, the high court judges should have 20 years of professional experience, nowadays this requirement is of ten years. In third place, the court judges will be elected by the corporation itself (direct cooptation) and not by the congressmen, as is currently done. And in fourth place, the high court judges retirement age will increase from 65 to 70 years, and once this occurs, it will take five years before they can seek a popular election position. The aim is that the judges complete their career in the high courts and don’t use it as a political platform.

Another key point on which consensus was achieved is the elimination of the much criticized Commission of Accusations of the House of Representatives, whose mission, never accomplished, is to investigate the president and judges, among other eminent personalities. Instead, a special court will be created (no one knows who will watch it) composed of nine judges, who will judge the president and other eminent personalities in criminal matters, while the disciplinary issues will be address by the traditional high courts. On this subject the project is unclear.

According to bill project for the judicial reform, the Supreme Court will investigate judges of the State Council and vice versa. The same scheme would be implemented between the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Judicial Council. This new formula has risen some fears. As the former judge Alfredo Beltrán said to SEMANA, this will generate "friction between the high courts and the possibility of impediments and challenges are very high. We will end in the permanent appointment of associate judges in each disciplinary investigation".

On the side of the Supreme Judicial Council the changes will not be as extreme as it was initially announced. This institution, where several corruption cases have occurred, will retain much of its functions. It seems that everything will change so that nothing changes. It also remains to find a consensus formula that finally solves the so-called train wreck, that in Colombia refers to the clash of judgments between the highest judicial organs in the country.
On the side of the criminal prosecution to the congressmen, in practice there are no major changes. It will formalize the internal division of the Supreme Court, where some judges investigate and some others judge, as it is already happening. A second instance will be established within the same court, and the last word would be left to judges of the Criminal Division.

With out a doubt, the ugly part of the agreement was the item that the Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Carlos Pinzon, added to the project at midnight. It argues that the crimes of the military would be known exclusively by military courts. The criticism was so big that on Friday the interior minister Germán Vargas, announced that the article will be removed from this initiative.

Although it seems that the path for this project is clear, there are still obstacles to overcome.

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