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SUMMARY: HOW TO STRENGTHEN THE INDEPENDENCE, QUALITY AND EFFECTIVENESS OF THE LATVIAN JUDICIAL SYSTEM IN THE FIGHT AGAINST CORRUPTION

On 15 October 2021, Transparency International Latvia (Delna), the United States Embassy in Latvia and the Transparency Fund organised an international online expert forum and roundtable discussion “Law and system of justice: a tool to fight corruption”. Participants in the expert forum and public discussion noted that work is ongoing to improve the independence, quality and effectiveness of the Latvian judiciary in the fight against corruption. This includes specialisation of courts and prosecutors in combating economic and corruption-related crimes, training of investigators, prosecutors and judges, and the establishment of a common methodology for judges, ensuring that similar cases are decided in a consistent manner.

The purpose of this event was to raise awareness and understanding of the rule of law in Latvia, the ability of the responsible authorities to anticipate and prevent risks that may, knowingly or unknowingly, result in violations and criminal offences, as well as to detect and prosecute them according to the rules of law. At the same time, we looked at the factors that affect the ability of law enforcement authorities to investigate and convict high-level officials in corruption-related cases and have an impact on political integrity. The event took place on the Zoom conference platform, with live streaming on Delna’s social media (www.delna.lv and Facebook) and on the TVNET news portal (in Latvian).

The event was opened by Lieske de Krijger, Deputy Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Latvia, who highlighted the importance of rule of law for the existence and growth of any society, and outlined ways to promote it, including ensuring effective whistleblowing systems and protection of whistleblowers, strengthening law enforcement institutions and their capacity to protect public values and ensuring that justice and the rule of law are embedded in society. The expert roundtable was attended by:

  • Aldis Bukšs, Head of the Office of the Minister of Justice.
  • Aigars Strupišs, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Latvia.
  • Inese Zelča, Head of the Division No. 1 (Policy Planning), Department of Strategy, Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau, Latvia.
  • Ameet Kabrawala, Federal Prosecutor and Regional Resident Legal Advisor at the US Embassy in Riga.

 

Mr Aldis Bukšs, representative of the Ministry of Justice, pointed out that corruption is one of the priorities of the Ministry and that continuous efforts are being made to strengthen the judiciary and improve the efficiency of law enforcement institutions (the Economic Court of Justice started its work in March 2021 and is already showing first results, which can be regarded as promising; the Justice Training Centre is to be opened in 2025, which will ensure that the qualifications of judges, prosecutors and specialised investigators are maintained and developed and that their skills and professional qualifications are brought up to European standards; the Crime Prevention Council Action Plan (2021-2026) is being implemented and the Council’s activities have been reviewed; the selection process of the Prosecutor General is now traceable). Mr Bukšs emphasised that the Ministry of Justice is following the implementation of international recommendations concerning the independence and efficiency of the judiciary and is addressing the shortcomings identified in the State Audit Office’s audit of the judiciary in early 2021.

Inese Zelča, representative of the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB), reported that the KNAB Anti-Corruption Plan (2021-2024) is currently being developed with inputs from civil society and a wide range of partners. The plan does not duplicate existing policy plans and is a medium-term document. The capacity of KNAB is being strengthened: new posts and a new remuneration model have been created, staff are being trained in areas such as conflict of interest identification, investigations and operational activities, financial analysis and risk assessment methods, trends in the cryptocurrency market, etc. A number of institutions will soon undergo random assessments of their internal anti-corruption control systems. The US Embassy’s representative, Ameet Kabrawala, commended the Latvian judicial system and noted that the Latvian Parliament (Saeima) has done much to improve it in recent years (e.g. the financial clean-up and fight against money laundering).

The expert forum was followed by a public discussion with the participation of Juris Rancāns, Chairman of the Defence, Internal Affairs and Corruption Prevention Committee, Inga Goldberga, Chair of the Public Administration and Local Government Committee, Ilmārs Dūrītis, Member of the 13th Saeima and Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Health, Members of the Saeima Jānis Iesalnieks un Aivars Geidāns, Head of the Office of the Minister of Justice Aldis Bukšs, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Latvia Aigars Strupišs, Evita Masule, Prosecutor of the Division for Coordination of the Corruption Combatting, Criminal Justice Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office, and Dace Valgere, Senior Inspector of the Strategic Planning Division, Internal Security Bureau. The discussion was moderated by Lolita Čigāne, international consultant in a field of good governance, elections and interest representation.

During the public discussion, we wanted to find out whether the measures to reduce corruption in Latvia, which were agreed during the discussion organised by Delna on 18 February 2021, are being implemented in practice. After the public discussion, we concluded that work is underway to improve the independence, quality and effectiveness of the Latvian judicial system in the fight against corruption. This includes the specialisation of courts and prosecutors in the fight against economic and corruption-related crimes, the training of investigators, prosecutors and judges and the establishment of a common methodology for judges. Based on what was discussed in the expert forum and the public discussion, Delna and the experts have identified a number of areas where progress is being made and where work needs to continue:

  • Training for investigators, prosecutors and judges according to their specialisation. Joint training for investigators and prosecutors is also organised to raise awareness of the specificities and needs of each specialisation in the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences. The aim of this cooperation is to facilitate the earliest possible involvement of the Prosecutor’s Office in the investigation phase in order to bring a case to conviction.
  • Specialisation of the Prosecutor’s Office and the courts in economic, financial and corruption-related crimes. The Prosecution Office for Investigation of Public Office Holders Misconduct Offences, established in January 2021, and the Economic Court, established in March, have started their work and continue to specialise and grow their competences. Both bodies will monitor and prosecute cases investigated by the KNAB, the Internal Security Bureau and the Internal Security Office of the State Revenue Service, and consequently the training of their staff, as well as the maintenance and development of their qualifications, must continue.
  • A selection procedure for judges (including a psychological assessment) and a complaints mechanism (meaning anyone can lodge a complaint against a judge) have been established. Mr Strupišs informed us that so far the complaints mechanism is working with low effectiveness. Delna points out that these solutions are promising but that further work is needed to implement them. In addition, goodwill is needed and work should be done to assess the efficiency of the courts, to train judges and to develop a common case law, ensuring that courts decide similar cases in a similar way.
  • The Internal Security Bureau (ISB) has made qualitative improvements in its investigative work, developed cooperation with the Prosecution Office for Investigation of Public Office Holders Misconduct Offences and looks favourably at the results achieved (Ms Valgere reports that investigative work has resulted in real penalties). At the same time, the ISB focuses on prevention – training of staff to educate on corruption-related issues (the consequences of corruption), to prevent crimes and to improve the quality of staff work. The ISB has launched an assessment of the internal control systems of the subordinate institutions of the Ministry of the Interior, which will lead to the identification of risks.

 

In addition, alongside these issues regarding the strengthening of the justice system, the current management of conflict of interest in Latvia should be reassessed.

  • The current Law on Prevention of Conflict of Interest in Activities of Public Officials should be reevaluated, with attention to its shortcomings and weaknesses. On the basis of this evaluation, a new framework for the future management of conflicts of interest of public officials (a new law) should be developed. With the adoption of the new law, officials should be educated about conflict of interest situations and the importance of transparency, involving civil society in the education process.
  • The State Chancellery should pay more attention to explaining, and to the management of conflicts of interest, not ruling out strengthening cooperation with the State Revenue Service.

 

The experts also pointed to a number of factors that need to be taken into account when assessing public attitudes and grievances regarding the work of law enforcement authorities and the effectiveness of law in Latvia:

  • The media plays a key role in shedding light on alleged cases of corruption (including regarding prosecutions and court verdicts); it hammers on cases but can also stir the pot, creating scandals. There are situations when the media publishes unverified information and facts and thus creates a public perception that the culprit has been found, even though the offence is still under investigation and the judge’s verdict has not yet been announced.
  • There is a tendency in society to punish alleged perpetrators on the basis of subjective assessments of media coverage without looking at the evidence, while the courts act in the opposite way – i.e., make decisions on the basis of evidence. It should be noted that the public does not have access to information about the progress of the investigation (the evidence uncovered in the course of the investigation) and cannot make judgements for the judges.
  • The public is convinced that mid-level officials are convicted, while offences committed by high-level officials do not come to trial and verdicts. This creates a belief that high-level officials can act unlawfully and go unpunished.

 

Recording of the expert forum and public discussion.

 

 

This was the final event in a four-event series on international recommendations and Latvia’s progress in preventing corruption and promoting transparency. This event is supported by the United States Embassy in Latvia and the Transparency Fund, with whose support we also organised the first three events. You are also invited to read summaries of the previous events:

Expert forum and public discussion “How to increase trust in public institutions in Latvia” (in Latvian).

Expert forum and public discussion “Managing conflict of interest in Latvia” (in Latvian).

Expert forum and public discussion “Legislation on lobbying in Latvia”.

 

This event is supported by the United States Embassy in Latvia and the Transparency Fund.

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