Hungary is a unitary parliamentary republic with a civil law system. Its sources of law include the constitution, acts of parliament, published governmental and ministerial decrees, and the decrees of local governments. The 2012 Constitution, also called the Fundamental Law of Hungary, marked a full break from the Soviet era. It was amended in 2013 to include significant reforms to the judicial system.
The Curia, also known as the Supreme Court of Hungary, is the highest judicial authority in the country. The Curia hears cases challenging actions by local governments in addition to appeals from the decisions of lower courts. Its decisions are binding on all Hungarian courts. The Curia has three divisions: civil, criminal, and administrative/labor. Each division has chambers that hear specific types of cases, including appeals and uniformity decisions (those that provide binding guidance on the lower courts to facilitate uniform application of Hungarian laws). Curia divisions also have working groups tasked with studying different matters related to judicial practice. The president and general vice president of the Curia are appointed to nine-year terms by a two-thirds majority of parliament.
In 2020, Zsolt Andras Varga was appointed president of the Curia. Just before his nomination, the government changed the criteria for appointment to the court, eliminating the requirement that Curia members have experience presiding over trials. Varga had been a deputy chief prosecutor, law professor, and member of the Constitutional Court, but he had no adjudication experience. Despite the change to the eligibility criteria, the National Judicial Council found Varga unqualified for the position. The Council’s finding was rejected by the National Assembly and Varga became Curia President.
Hungary’s lower courts include three first instance courts (district, administrative, and labor) as well as regional courts that hear appeals from the first instance courts and other statutorily designated cases. Regional courts of appeal hear appeals from the lower district, administrative, labor, and regional courts.
The Constitutional Court
The Constitutional Court of Hungary is not considered part of the judicial system. It reviews cases challenging the constitutionality of acts of parliament and its decisions are not subject to appeal. The Court’s fifteen judges are elected by a two-thirds majority of Parliament for twelve-year terms that may be renewed once. Justices must have outstanding legal knowledge or at least twenty years of legal practice. The Court hears cases in three- or five-judge panels.
The 2013 amendments to Hungary’s constitution significantly impacted the Court’s jurisdiction and jurisprudence. For example, rulings made before 2012 can no longer be considered; this change effectively overturned decades of the court’s jurisprudence. The Court is now prohibited from reviewing the constitutionality of future substantive constitutional amendments and may not annul any law passed by a two-thirds majority of parliament. New standing and exhaustion requirements were introduced, limiting access to constitutional review.
Introduction of “Limited Precedent”
Prior to April 2020, the Curia issued various types of resolutions to encourage uniformity in legal decision-making, but not all of these resolutions and decisions were binding on all lower courts. In April 2020, a system of limited precedent was introduced, moving Hungary closer to the model used in common law countries. Under the new system, lower courts are bound by all published decisions of the Curia. Lower court rulings that deviate from the Curia’s legal interpretations must clearly articulate the reason for the deviation in the judgment.
Hungary does not currently have a comprehensive and fully-searchable database of court decisions. As a result, judges might inadvertently deviate from prior Curia judgments. To address this challenge, parliament created a new mechanism, the “Unity Complaint.” This procedure provides an additional right of appeal if: (1) the Curia rejects an application for appellate review despite a lower court’s deviation from a prior Curia judgment, (2) the Curia upholds the lower court’s deviation from a prior Curia ruling, or (3) the Judicial Council of the Curia deviates from a prior decision of the Curia in a matter of law.
The National Office for the Judiciary (NOJ) is responsible for judicial administration. The judiciary’s policy-making body is the National Judicial Council. The Council reviews and approves rules of procedure, budgets, and judicial candidates, among other duties. Its fifteen members are judges elected by their peers for non-renewable six-year terms. The President of the Curia is a standing member.
Attorneys interested in becoming a judge apply for a position with the president of the court on which they wish to serve. They must be at least 30 years old and have one year of legal experience.
Candidates are interviewed and ranked; a final ranking is forwarded to the court president and then to the president of the NOJ for review. Applications for a position on the Curia are reviewed by the Curia president. The presidents of the NOJ and Curia have discretion to reject an applicant. Those that are approved have their names forwarded to the President of Hungary for review.
In 2022, the mandatory retirement age for judges was raised to 65 (from 62).
Hungarian citizens who are at least thirty years-old may serve as a lay assessor (sometimes referred to as a ‘lay judge’). Lay assessors are called to serve for certain types of cases, including military cases, labor disputes, and criminal cases involving a minor. They sit on a panel with one professional judge. At least one lay assessor on the panel must have relevant specialized knowledge in certain types of criminal cases. For example, in juvenile criminal cases, one assessor must have a background in education.
Lay assessors are elected for four-year terms by county government councils and are assigned to judicial chambers by the president of each court. The NOJ, which is responsible for judicial administration and court management, determines which courts require lay assessors and the number of assessors per court. The election of lay assessors takes place throughout the year on designated dates.
Once elected, a lay assessor is assigned to a judge’s chambers by the president of the court. Lay assessors have the same responsibility as professional judges and determine both questions of law and fact. The Hungarian Code of Judicial Conduct applies to both judges and lay assessors. For example, assessors are not permitted to join or maintain membership in a political party while serving.