Czech Republic: Negotiations to expand scope of ombud's remit continue in the legislature
The Czech lower house did not succumb to efforts by right-wing legislators to reject the Government's bill to expand the remit of the ombud during a first reading. If the bill is adopted, the Public Defender of Rights (the ombud) would receive the right to propose that the Constitutional Court overturn legislation, as well as the right to file lawsuits in cases of discrimination; critics of the change say this would place the institution at the same level as that of the Czech President.
MPs were recently unable to decide which committees should review the legislation prior to its approval. Many committees were proposed and the chair of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) faction in the lower house, Czech MP Zbyněk Stanjura, asked for the review period to be extended to three months.
Czech MP Vojtěch Filip (Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia - KSČM), who chaired the legislative session, refused to convene a vote on that request, referencing the lower chamber's rules of order, according to which the motion had not been made in time. Czech MP Miroslav Kalousek, chair of the TOP 09 MPs, then asked that his faction be allowed to take a break from the session until the end of the following day, which meant the MPs would not be able to make a decision on further review of the bill until Wednesday 1 April at the earliest.
Dienstbier: Expanding the ombud's powers is part of the Government's program statement
Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier (Czech Social Democratic Party - ČSSD) says the suggestion of giving the Public Defender of Rights the right to propose that the Constitutional Court abolish unconstitutional legislation is expressly outlined in the Government's program statement. "Here I might mention an interesting comparison, and that is that ombuds have similar authorizations in 11 European Union countries. What is interesting is that this authorization exists in all of the Member States that are also the so-called post-communist states, with the exception of Lithuania. Otherwise, in all the other countries except the Czech Republic, the ombud has this authorization. This is, therefore, standard," the minister said in his opening speech.
"The powers will not be expanded materially, just procedurally," Dienstbier said. Czech ombud Anna Šabatová, who was asked by MPs in January to attend the negotiations, noted that "If someone were to ask me whether these two new tools are essential to my work, I would truthfully answer that they are not necessary. The institution of the Public Defender of Rights has been working for 15 years, I think it has been very effective, and to date it has not had these options. If someone were to ask me whether these new tools might improve the situation of the people who turn to my office for help, or if I might be able to find better solutions for some of their specific cases through these new options, then I would unequivocally say yes, they would help."
"This is genuinely not about my powers and this is not about the power of my office, this is about the people on whose behalf we are working. My power will not be increased by one iota," Šabatová said in her speech, emphasizing that the bill is in the spirit of the position of the ombud to date, which is an institution that cannot decide anything but merely proposes and recommends measures.
Czech MP Martin Komárek (ANO) backed expanding the remit of the Public Defender of Rights. "In our country there are so many people who have been humiliated and insulted, and it is partially our fault, ladies and gentlemen - they genuinely need someone to stand up for them. If the ombud is able to perform this office to the best of her ability and conscience, she will help us. She will help us correct the damage done to our society overall. I personally believe that expanding the remit would be a good way to do this," he told the lower house.
Stanjura: Refusing to lease to Roma is the same as rejecting smokers
Czech MP Stanjura objected to access to housing even being grounds for a civil lawsuit. "This bill reeks of an attempt by our left-wingers to do a good deed by telling private property owners whom to accommodate," he said.
As an example, he mentioned a lawsuit against the owner of a real estate agency who refused to broker the leasing of an apartment to a Romani woman by referencing the fact that the property owner had previous negative experiences with Romani tenants. The MP pointed out that no such lawsuit had ever been filed in the case of an owner refusing to lease an apartment to a smoker.
According to Czech MP Jana Černochová (ODS), Šabatová's tenure as ombud is an example of "how it is possible to project one's own ideological convictions and world view into how the job of the ombud is performed." Czech MP Jiří Mihola, chair of the governing Christian Democratic faction in the lower house, said that if the bill were adopted the ombud would be entitled to join the proceedings of other plaintiffs, which heretofore only the Supreme State Prosecutor has been able to do.
"Brno [the ombud] is de facto establishing a civil prosecutor or a monocratic third chamber of Parliament with executive powers," he said. Currently the Public Defender of Rights cannot ask the Constitutional Court to abolish controversial laws or parts thereof.
The Office of the Public Defender of Rights comes across controversial provisions of legal standards that might be unconstitutional during the course of its work. At present only the President of the Republic, a group of at least 41 MPs or 17 Senators, a Regional Authority, the individual whom the problem concerns, or, under certain circumstances, the Government have such standing before the Constitutional Court.
According to the Government, if the bill were to be adopted, the ombud would also be able to file civil lawsuits over discrimination. Currently only an alleged victim of discrimination has standing before the courts in such cases.
According to the explanatory memorandum, however, resolving such an individual case through the courts is no guarantee that discriminatory behavior will be eliminated across the board. A ruling that an individual has been subjected to unequal treatment by someone is not the same as barring someone from continuing to treat others unequally.
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