Over the past decade, outcries for greater accountability and transparency within Ukraine’s judicial system vehemently echoed among its citizens. Ukraine’s Constitution had provisions preventing the establishment of a truly independent and accountable judiciary, and without a merit-based process for selecting judges, public confidence in the judicial system waned. Closed-door procedures and inconsistent standards weakened the courts’ effectiveness further. Meanwhile, on the floor of the courtroom, judicial operations were tainted by corruption. As mass protests came to a head in 2014, Ukraine’s judiciary desperately needed a unified vision for reform.
But how could Ukraine build a judiciary worthy of citizens’ trust?
Through USAID’s Fair, Accountable, Independent, and Responsible (FAIR) Judiciary Program, the country’s judicial systems began laying the foundation for sweeping legislative, regulatory, and institutional change. FAIR brought judicial independence, integrity, and public trust to the forefront of reform. Sharing the vision of a judiciary that complies with European and international standards, FAIR and Ukrainian judicial institutions worked together to restore the integrity of the country’s courts.
Judging Justly in Ukraine’s Courts
Sustainable judicial reform would not be possible without constitutional reform to ensure the independence of the judicial branch of power. Throughout the years, lack of political will prevented the development and adoption of proper constitutional amendments. But increasing social demand for an independent, accountable, and fair judiciary led President Petro Poroshenko to establish a Constitutional Commission to lead amendments in the judiciary, decentralization, and advancement of human rights.
On June 2, 2016, the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, reached a major milestone: adopting constitutional amendments that provide a legal framework for the judiciary to align with international and European standards.
One of the key steps in judicial reform is ensuring judges are appointed through a merit-based process. To create an objective system, the High Qualifications Commission of Judges (HQC) was established as the permanent, full-time institution responsible for appointments. From background checks to an anonymous qualification exam, the selection of judges became a process based on performance — not politics. FAIR supported the HQC in conducting three rounds of nationwide judicial testing and selection processes.
“At present, it is the most democratic selection process in Ukraine,” one test-taker said. “Previously, I was neither aware of this procedure nor could access any information about it. Today, if you have enough knowledge and experience, you do not need a reference from a chief judge to try to become a judge.”
But this regulatory reform did not just benefit aspiring and active judges. Citizens also gained a judiciary system that they could finally hold accountable.
For example, FAIR helped HQC develop a standardized judicial misconduct complaint form. The form helps the commission process complaints more effectively and educate the public about the judicial discipline process. More than one-third of complaints are now filed using this standardized form, which is available on the HQC’s website.
In addition, judges must now adhere to a new modern Code of Judicial Ethics, as well as Commentary to the Code, which provide judges with clear standards and guidance related to their conduct on and off the bench.
“Being a judge is more than a position; it is a way of life under rules of a special code of honor,” explained Yaroslav Romaniuk, the former first deputy chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ukraine and chair of the Council of Judges. “It was critically important to develop the new Code of Judicial Ethics that is a generalized set of rules for every judge.”
With Ukraine’s constitutional and legislative amendments, court operations are better equipped to promote the rule of law, render justice, and protect human rights. But regaining the trust of the Ukrainian people has required reading between the lines.