Bulgaria's troubled judicial system and its courts are among the institutions most harshly criticised by the general public, the politicians left, right and centre, and the EU. Viewed with a combination of fear and reticence, it has been accused of being sluggish, cumbersome, ineffective and very corrupt. Reform in this area was one of the EU's key requirements in the process of entry negotiation. Bulgaria's actual membership on 1 January 2007 has not deterred the European Commission from monitoring the ongoing reform of the judicial system, and it has made it clear that failure to comply with required standards in the fight against organised crime, money laundering, and corruption among senior state officials would result in a safeguard clause. Efforts to straighten out the judiciary are ongoing, hopefully to an effective end.
Given this background, claiming your rights at a local court may sound like a fiendishly complicated, if not downright meaningless task, but is the only legal way to go about it. Believe it or not, if you were to take a case to a Bulgarian court, chances are it wouldn't take much more time – nor much less for that matter – than in any other EU country (see box). Just as anywhere else, you need to know what to do, and how to go about it.
For a start, get a good lawyer. Legal matters can be baffling enough in your own country, but trying to comply with a different set of rules in a foreign country can leave you feeling totally at sea. Bulgaria's civil law is essentially different from English common law, so hiring a local lawyer is advisable. Word-of-mouth is the best option, otherwise look for Bulgarian Bar Association members on the law portal www.lex.bg, which has a comprehensive English version. In general, professional fees are cheaper than in other parts of Europe.
Lawyer Mariana Valkova
To help you find your way through the Bulgarian legal system, VAGABOND talked to lawyer Mariana Valkova from the Sofia-based Lega Expert Company. Possible scenarios no doubt exceed those below, but they should give you some pointers on the jurisdiction in this country.
If you have bought property in Bulgaria, only subsequently to find that you were in some way deceived, no doubt you will want to take the matter to court. Your solicitor will prepare all the necessary paperwork, and file a suit at the district court, if the loss incurred is more than 10,000 leva (which it usually is). For losses of less than 10,000, it will be filed at the regional court. The modus operandi that follows can be complicated depending on the circumstances and the need for expert opinions and additional procedures. The court schedules more than one – normally two or three – hearings and then the relevant panel of judges makes a ruling. This can, and in practice is, appealed to the relevant court of appeal; its ruling can be appealed to the Supreme Court of Cassation. The SCC's ruling is final, but takes quite some time to materialise, and not because of incompetence or corruption. The reason is much more straightforward – the number of appeals filed outnumbers the judges, Valkova explains. The entire process – from the first- to the third-instance court – can take up to three or four years. But don't despair, the law allows for the ruling to be enforced once the second-instance court has issued a judgement, Valkova says.
Any small claims, such as damage to your property or a bite from a neighbour's dog, are referred to the relevant regional court (there are over 100 of them scattered around the country). The procedure is the same as above, only faster, as there are many more regional courts than district courts, of which there are only 28 in total.
In disputes between a customer and a vendor, be it a street vendor, a retailer or a wholesaler, the body to alert is the Consumer Protection Commission, available at www.kzp.bg and phone 0700 111 22. Bear in mind you would need a Bulgarian speaker to help you contact either.
The Commission has the power to resolve disputes and its rulings are subject to control by the relevant regional court, which monitors whether these are enforced, Valkova says.
Cases of corruption at any central or local government level should be reported to the Interior Ministry's anti-corruption hotline 982 2222 or website www.nocorr.mvr.bg (see VAGABOND No 3, p70 for details).
All kinds of crime – theft, burglary, road traffic accidents, personal injuries, and so on, should be reported to the local police department and the local prosecutor's office, preferably with the help of a lawyer. An investigation will be carried out and if there is sufficient evidence, the prosecutor will take the matter to the regional court.
Should someone wish to dissolve a marriage contracted in Bulgaria, the procedure goes first to the regional and then to the district court. It can take anything from a couple of months, when there is mutual consent, to a year, when there is not.
If you have serious doubts about a judge's professional standards or conduct, you can make a tip-off to the Supreme Judicial Council. This, however, would not affect the status of the judge's rulings, it can only serve as grounds for the supreme judiciary institution to initiate an investigation and/or exert control over his work, provided other complaints have been made about the person, Valkova says.
If you feel your rights have not been protected by the Bulgarian state, and thus the judicial system, you can address human rights watchdogs or the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Very serious crimes are taken to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. But hopefully, your only reason for visiting either of these cities any time soon will be for pleasure, not to pay a visit to the courts.
A Matter of Time
A February 2005-May 2006 study sponsored by the British Embassy in Sofia, carried out by the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a non-profit organisation, and Alpha Research, a local social research agency, concluded that in contrast with public opinion, Bulgaria's judiciary system meets EU standards as regards efficiency indices. For instance, court and pre-trial procedures on civil and criminal cases in Bulgaria take no longer than in other EU member countries. In Bulgaria a civil case lasts 350 days and a criminal case takes 835 days. What is time-consuming, however, is passing a case from one court to another – 82 days in a civil case and 74 in a criminal case.
The Bulgarian Legal System in Brief
The Bulgarian law system is a civil, as opposed to the UK's common, law system: it recognises the Acts of Parliament and not judicial precedents as the main source of law.
Since 1991, the judiciary has been a separate, but equal, branch of government consisting of three separate authorities: the courts, the public prosecution offices and the investigation offices.
In 1998, Bulgaria introduced a three-tier court system for civil and criminal cases: trial courts, which can be Regional or District Courts; interim appellate courts, District Courts and Courts of Appeal; and a cassation court, namely the Supreme Court of Cassation. Regional Courts' decisions are appealed at the relevant District Court, and, finally, at the SCC. If the original trial takes place in a District Court, its decisions are reviewed by the relevant Court of Appeals, and ultimately the SCC.