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The new Codes: Between doctrine and judicial practice


The presentation by the Justice Ministry of the new draft codes and procedural laws was the starting point for major debates in the political and media communities. Also worth mentioning is that the strengths and weaknesses of the Ministry’s drafts have been hijacked by political leaders, who are ready to plead for or against the criminalisation of certain deeds, and to mount small-scale media crusades defending the civil rights threatened by the legislative provisions in question.

Faced with such opposition, the government was forced to accept parliamentary debates on the drafts, but hinted that its patie­nce was not unlimited (unless the four bills are amended and endorsed in due time, the Government will take respon­sibility on their enactment). I find this situation, or rather the paradoxes that it generates, to be relevant for the insti­tutional failures in the Romanian poli­ti­cal system.

On the one hand, the call for legis­lative debate is entirely legitimate: when the four key Codes that regulate most human interactions and most of the judicial process are not to be discussed in Parliament (which is the ultimate authority in the field in all demo­cratic states), then the role of Parlia­ment itself is seriously ques­tioned. Leaving aside the disinterest of the MPs (who, in a first stage, only bo­thered to echo the criticism brought by the media), the attitude of the govern­ment is questionable in other respects we well. For instance, if we admit that a debate is necessary, we should not intro­duce any time constraints. After all, the special parliamentary com­mi­ttees are not a bunch of friends who chatter away at the government’s judicial policies. To admit that amen­d­ments are necessary means, at least in form, to admit that the bills are perfectible – which is why we should not hurry the MPs, either under the false pretext that we have to endorse the Codes at the request of the European Commission, or under the threat of governmental responsibility. The latter is particularly illogical: since the debate is intended to improve the Codes, I don’t believe that the risk of prolonged debates is as high as to justify a return to the initial drafts.
On the other hand, there is exten­sive debate on the amendable nature of these four bills. I was disappointed to find that the public paid no attention whatsoever to the Code of Civil Pro­cedure — in a public communication effort, the Justice Ministry posted on its homepage its replies to the issues in the media agenda. And, as far as this bill is concerned, the Ministry had nothing to reply to, according to its web side.
In the current reductionist debate (the draft Codes are either good or bad) worth mentioning are several institutional policy aspects, which are in fact recurrent in the Romanian political practice, and which invite criticism and, possibly, improvements. On the one hand, supporters of the Codes rely on judicial doctrine and comparative legislation, as the ulti­ma­te justification for the amendment of the new bills. This emphasis on doc­tri­ne, which is claimed to be a specialist approach (hence the key role of the professionals who have drawn up the bills or who criticise them) significantly reduces the political nature of these bills and the responsibility for their enactment. It is one thing to cri­mi­na­lise and punish corruption, as attemp­ted by one side in this dispute, and it is an entirely different thing to leave this to moral censure alone, as the op­po­site side would have it. Essentially, the regulation of such important aspects must be based on a specific view on doctrine, for which policymakers must take political responsibility. While there may be utilitarian reasons that may support the need to adopt a particular policy, its moral validation resides not in its efficiency or celerity, but in a broa­der outlook on the Romanian so­ciety and on how it should be orga­nised. Otherwise, we may claim that we have studied the legislation of other states and taken over the best parts of each, but we run the risk of endorsing laws that we regard as the universally rea­sonable solution, only to find our­selves unable to handle the practical problems generated by the enfor­ce­ment of those laws.

On the other hand, this emphasis on the criminal or civil law of other sta­tes, just like the criticism of the draft Codes, sheds light on how these legis­lative changes are being justified. The impact of legislation changes is of an institutional nature: there is a set of rules that regulate people’s conduct and expectations, and we change the­se rules (sometimes radically). The problem is not so much with the chan­ge as such, but with measuring its pros­pective effects. Basically, indi­vi­duals are rational actors, although their reasoning process has its limi­tations. They will respond to a change in rules, and will create new behaviours and attitudes (that code supporters or critics have not even tried to predict), new action patterns that may or may not be socially desirable. What will be the effect of sentence abatement? Without in-depth research, we can only rely on comparative legislation and on more or less informed opinions. What will be the effect of de-criminalising prostitution? Or of accepting evidence indirectly generated by illegal evi­den­ce? Will we have offenders who try to take advantage of this newfound le­nien­ce, or will we have public autho­rities which push the limits of the law, in an attempt to create de facto power for themselves, in spite of the new legis­lation? This medium and long-term analysis is imperfect; citizens’ respon­ses to new provisions may be utterly unexpected and unpredictable. But resorting to a political or judicial doctrine alone does not guarantee the existence of judicial instruments that are immune to criticism and perfectly applicable. At most, it can guarantee a consistent approach, in terms of doctrine, and an approach lacking political endorsement (because the political doctrines that Romanian par­ties claim to embrace should tell us exactly where a politician will stand on the issue of ownership or on crimi­na­li­sing a particular behaviour, for instan­ce).
Meanwhile, another element is noteworthy. While interaction patterns in the Romanian public space gave us reasons to expect that we will approa­ch such laws at this level alone, we cannot overlook the absence of deba­tes within institutions or professional associations that represent the direct interests of those in charge with the administration of justice. There are magistrate associations, there is a Higher Council of Magistrates, there are bar structures and there is a trade u­nion of police forces. These institutions and associations should overcome their petty clashes over salaries, status and role, and should take direct interest in this debate. Nowa­days, the lawyers, judges and prosecutors are more than just members of a profession intended to support and enforce the law. When law changes are proposed, their opinions on the matter should be heard and paid heed to (and when such opinions are not expressed, there are always polling methods that are highly rele­vant to this particular case).

The overall conclusion of debates on the four draft Codes is pessimistic. Without questioning the profes­sio­na­lism of those who put them together or the good faith of those who criticise them, I believe that at the end of this debate we will have a well defined and doctrine-consistent set of laws (in technical terms, the renumbering of a judicial act that has been successively amended is, in itself, a step forward). But we have no hint of what will ha­ppen from now on in judicial practice, and of the unforeseen effects of the enactment of these four Codes.

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