Even though judges know perfectly well that corruption is unlawful and should be denounced, we do not see much readiness to take active steps when the honesty of a colleague has been called into question.
Judging Lady Justice
People in Latvia commonly believe that high-level corruption goes unpunished. Most corruption scandals end without criminal charges being filed against anyone, to say nothing of people who are guilty of corruption actually being convicted of such charges. The Prosecutor General’s office has often checked to find whether the activities of high-ranking officials have involved signs of criminal violations. These investigations were the chief focus of the study “The Courts and Corruption”, in which there was an analysis of the way in which corruption is investigated, of efforts that are being made to prevent corruption in the courts, etc. The author of the study has drawn several conclusions about these subjects.
If suspicions of corruption occur after, not before a bribe has possibly been offered, then it is all but impossible to find out the truth and to prove someone’s guilt. Prosecutors cannot really be blamed here, because the problem has several causes. Everyone who is involved in corruption is usually interested in hiding this criminal violation, the law limits the ability of prosecutors to use the information which they collect during their investigations as evidence in cases, the relevant institutions lack resources, and perhaps they lack a targeted approach to investigating complicated cases of corruption.
The independent status of prosecutors in Latvia provides them with some protection against political pressure, but it also reduces our ability to implement democratic controls over what the prosecutors are doing. Some officials at the Prosecutor General’s office have said that an investigation before the launch of a criminal case is not something that prosecutors should be involved in, but in practice the prosecutors do tend to run such investigations. There is a sad lack of consistency in this process, and it is not clear why some investigations are run by prosecutors while others are run by the police. In still other cases, scandals end without any involvement by the country’s law enforcement institutions.
When the work that is done in an investigation is at only a minimal level, the investigation is often unimportant. If a ministry has concluded an agreement on the supply of goods in a way which violates a whole series of procedural norms and if the prosecutor simply makes note of these procedural violations, there is no point to the investigation from the perspective of the fight against corruption. Seemingly minor procedural problems in government procurement processes, however, indicate that there might have been bribery or other forms of corruption.
When it comes to the courts, no study of corruption has found convincing evidence of the idea that corruption is widespread among Latvian judges. There are, however, factors which facilitate the risk of corruption here.
When new judges are recruited and when the work of judges during their careers is supervised, there is virtually no focus on the personal behavior of judges. The law on the courts says that honest lawyers can become judges, but that is just a declarative norm. The honesty of a new judge is not checked by anyone, even though that person’s previous activities should be investigated. The psychological specifics of the new judge must be studied.
Judges know perfectly well that corruption is unlawful and should be denounced, but in the interviews which the author conducted, there was little sign of any real readiness to take active steps in those cases when the honesty of a colleague has come under doubt. “Active steps” must not always involve a report to prosecutors or to the relevant institutions, especially if the suspicions are not sufficiently strong. A serious discussion in the offices of the court chairman might be enough for a start. Silent tolerance of colleagues who might be corrupted and the manifestation of unhealthy professional solidarity among judges can seriously harm the prestige of the courts and the rule of law in this country.
The salaries of judges are also of importance. If a highly qualified judge receives only 300 lats per month while reviewing cases which involve hundreds of thousands of lats or more, then bribery cannot be justified, but one can understand that a judge might see the taking of a few hundred or thousand lats as being something that is unimportant. No one is allowed to interfere with court rulings, and specific norms in the law can be interpreted in various ways. The result is that judges have considerable freedom of action.