Czech lower house concludes first negotiations about ombud's new powers
The Czech lower house has taken one month to complete its first reading of a Government amendment to expand the powers of the office of the Public Defender of Rights (the ombud). The delays were due to a demand from the right-wing opposition that the current Czech Public Defender of Rights, Anna Šabatová, be present during the negotiations.
Yesterday the lower house decided that the draft amendment will now be discussed by its Petition Committee in addition to its Constitutional Law Committee. The right wing originally wanted to reject the amendment out of concern over how Šabatová might use the new powers, such as the option to file civil lawsuits in cases of discrimination.
Czech MP Zbyněk Stanjura, chair of the Civic Democratic (ODS) MPs, said that if the right to access to housing were to serve as grounds for a civil lawsuit, that would constitute an effort to tell private apartment owners whom to accommodate. Stanjura gave the example of a lawsuit against the owner of a real estate brokerage in northern Bohemia who refused to arrange for an apartment to be leased by a Romani woman because the owner did not want a Romani tenant, allegedly because of previous negative experiences with other Romani tenants.
The ombud's office contributed to the lawsuit by revealing a pattern of discrimination against members of the Romani minority; the Romani woman involved in the case was only pretending to be interested in leasing the apartments when she called brokerages as part of a test case. Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier (Czech Social Democratic Party - ČSSD) says that while the right to private property is guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, so are other rights.
"These rights need to be applied proportionally, so the protection of the right to private property ends when the enjoyment of that right disproportionately interferes with another constitutionally protected fundamental human right," he said. Currently only the alleged victims of discrimination have standing to file this kind of lawsuit in the Czech Republic.
The explanatory memorandum for the amendment explains that addressing a case of discrimination in a single instance before the courts is no guarantee that the discriminatory behavior will be eliminated across the board. The prohibition on inequality of access in the case of one person does not prevent the treatment of others that same way.
The Public Defender of Rights, according to the amendment, would also be given the right to propose that the Constitutional Court repeal legislation; critics of that idea say it would place the ombud on the same level as the President. During his previous discussion of the amendment, Dienstbier defended it by saying it is based on the Government's program declaration and that greater powers for the ombud are customary in many other EU countries.
Currently the ombud cannot ask the Constitutional Court to abolish contentious legislation or parts thereof. The ombud encounters potentially unconstitutional provisions and standards when addressing citizens' complaints.
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