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In its second annual EU rule-of-law report released in Brussels on Tuesday, the European Commission looks at the independence and quality of Romania's judiciary, the fight against corruption, media pluralism and media freedom.

In the chapter on the justice system, the report notes that the perception of the independence of the judiciary is average, having improved significantly as compared to previous years among the general public.

The 2017-2019 amendments to the justice laws are being reviewed, and a separate bill aimed at dismantling the prosecutorial Section for the Investigation of Offences in the Judiciary (SIIJ) is being discussed in Parliament.

The document also notes that the Court of Justice of the European Union has issued a preliminary ruling on the civil liability of judges and prosecutors, and reminds that the draft justice package includes amendments to the rules governing the appointment and accountability of the Judicial Inspection management.

The procedure for the appointment of high-ranking prosecutors is being reviewed as part of the amendments to the justice laws, and the procedure for the dismissal of top prosecutors will be amended following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, the document states.

With regard to the quality of the justice system, the Commission's report notes that the deficit of human resources in the Romanian judiciary remains a concern, given that almost 10 percent of the judges' positions and close to 16 percent of prosecutors' positions were still vacant as of December 2020, which also has an impact on the efficiency of the justice system, the Commission says.

Although the early retirement scheme for magistrates introduced in 2018, which allowed the possibility of retirement after 20 years of service, was repealed by Parliament in March 2021 following the recommendations from both the Venice Commission and GRECO, close to 300 magistrates retired in 2020 and almost 150 during the first quarter of 2021, further increasing this deficit.

The judgment of the Constitutional Court declaring unconstitutional the provision requiring the approval of the Superior Council of Magistracy for the regulation on the organization and conduct of the competition for admission to the judiciary created a legal void, which resulted in no competition to recruit new magistrates being organized in 2020.

In order to bridge this legislative gap, on June 22, 2020 the Ministry of Justice submitted to public debate a draft law on the admission to the National Institute of Magistracy, which was adopted by the Senate on February 3, 2021. However, upon ex ante referral by a group of parliamentarians, the Constitutional Court declared the law in question unconstitutional.

As a result, the legislation in force did not allow for the organization of competitions for admission to the judiciary, leading to further delays in new recruitments and to an increase in the caseload of judges and prosecutors, adding pressure on judges and prosecutors with implications for the quality and efficiency of justice.

A new law, adopted by Parliament on June 28, 2021, addressed this legal void and will allow competitions for admission to the judiciary to take place in 2021 and 2022.

The report highlights that, by the Decision of July 14, 2021, the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional the provisions of the respective law that would have reduced from 10 to 7 years the seniority required for taking part in the competitions for the appointment of DNA and DIICOT prosecutors.

As regards the anti-corruption framework, the European Commission's report notes that the perception among experts and business executives is that the level of corruption in the public sector remains high. In the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, Romania scores 44/100 and ranks 19th in the European Union and 69th globally. This perception has remained relatively stable over the past five years.

The document also notes that the adoption of a new National Anti-Corruption Strategy for 2021-2025 is a priority for the government, and the effectiveness of investigation and sanctioning of medium and high-level corruption has improved.

The 2017-2019 amendments to the justice laws represented a major impediment for the proper functioning of the DNA, which will continue for as long as they are in force, the European Commission warns.

The report also shows that continued uncertainty as regards amendments to the criminal code and criminal procedure code remains an important challenge in the fight against corruption.

The Chamber of Deputies has set criteria to decide on requests for lifting parliamentary immunities, but the Senate has not yet followed through.

According to the report, the legal framework on integrity remains fragmented, and the National Integrity Agency (ANI) continues to investigate incompatibilities, conflicts of interest and unjustified wealth.

The PREVENT electronic system for preventing conflicts of interest in public procurement is effective, as the number of detected conflicts of interest has significantly reduced.

A law on whistleblower protection has been in force in Romania since 2004, however its implementation in practice is relatively limited.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the prosecution of corruption cases remained effective.

As regards media pluralism and media freedom, the report states that the lack of specific safeguards for editorial independence and editorial norms continues to raise concerns, noting that transparency of media ownership continues to be incomplete.

State advertising continues to be an important source of financing for the media sector, and state information campaign funds have been an important means of support to the media during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, defamation lawsuits against investigative journalists continue to be reported, the Commission also states. AGERPRES (RO - author: Irina Cristea, editor: Ionut Mares; EN - editor: Simona Klodnischi)

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