History and Judicial Reform


The past of supreme jurisdiction in Hungary

All those national and international political factors that affected the everyday of the prevailing Hungarian state exerted an influence - whether positive or negative - over its jurisdiction as well. The state of St. Stephen came to the vanguard of Europe in terms of legal security. With his codes the king - as the prominent person of supreme jurisdiction - laid down the foundations of a thousand year-old development of the legal system. After the 1320s the administration of justice in the Hungarian Kingdom assumed a structure that was to survive for centuries to come. However, the annihilating defeat suffered from the Turks at Mohács in 1526 signified the defeat of Palatine Werbőczy and the political regime of the day together with its system of jurisdiction. With the division of the country into three parts in 1541 the administration of justice involving the presence and personal participation of the king ceased to function in regions under Habsburg control. Elsewhere, in areas ruled by the Turks, the legal system of the occupying forces was introduced. The centralised administration of justice of the Curia, which had previously been of major importance, was now on the decline, to be replaced by local feudal jurisdiction.

Within the framework of the judicial reform in 1723, Act XXIV dealt with the Table of Seven, the highest judicial forum consisting of seven judges and presided by the Palatine, who was at the same time the president of the whole Curia. Based on the development of law of earlier centuries, Act XXV regulated the position of the Royal Court of Appeal led by the Chief Judicial Representative, which had its first session on May 2, 1724. The Curia, made up of two forums, the Table of Seven and the Royal Table (or the Royal Court of Appeal), was turned into a permanent court working in Pest independently of the royal court, though it did not meet regularly until the reign of Joseph II. With the establishment of four and from 1726 onwards five regional courts beside the Curia the framework of jurisdiction valid up to 1868 was laid down.

Following the surrender at Világos on 3 November 1849, Franz Joseph I dissolved the entire system of Hungarian courts. Out of the former courts of the Curia the Appeal Court of Exchange was partially and temporarily reinstituted at the end of 1849 but in 1850 - when in line with the ideas of absolutism the "imperial and royal" court structure was created (together with its supreme court) - it was dissolved again. The Table of Seven, which had previously been the highest legal forum, was dissolved. Its jurisdiction was taken over by the Kaiserlicher und Königlicher Oberster Gerichts- und Cassationshof that ruled in Vienna from 1848 and its competence was extended to cover the whole of Hungary. The legal successors of the Appeal Court of Exchange and the Royal Table were five regional courts called Oberlandsgerichte. The occupying forces destroyed the system of both the high courts and the lower-level judicial forums of the country and the legal system associated with the world of the estates was replaced by a centralised, unified, and clear-cut system of courts, the achievement of a foreign absolute power. It served modernisation by separating public administration from the administration of justice almost completely and by dividing the functions of prosecution and jurisdiction. The October Diploma of 1860 (the imperial decree granting Hungary independence in internal affairs once again) set a limit to the jurisdiction of foreign legal forums, abolishing the judicial system forced on Hungary at the time of absolutism.

The Conference of the Lord Chief Justice in 1861 reinstituted the judicial structure of the period before the revolution of 1848. The Royal Hungarian Curia began functioning again on 3 April 1861 in its building on Friars' Market in Pest. The Conference of the Lord Chief Justice left the structure of the feudal Curia untouched, however, in the light of the demands of bourgeois development and the changes it involved, the framework of the judicial system associated with the estates, which had been restored in several aspects, proved untenable. Act LIV of 1868 brought about two courts of appeal, with panels of five, one in Budapest and one at Marosvásárhely, to replace the dissolved regional appellate courts. The statute declared that "the highest legal authority as regards the whole jurisdiction of the two royal courts of appeal would rest with the highest court under the name 'Royal Hungarian Curia' located in Pest." This meant that the functions of the supreme court consisting of two departments - the Court of Cassation adjudicating appeals in the field of the law of procedure and the Supreme Tribunal dealing with cases of third instance on the merits - were narrowed down to the jurisdiction of the former Table of Seven.

On 1 June 1869 the Court of Cassation held its statutory meeting under the chairmanship of Lord Chief Justice Count György Majláth. The Royal Court of Appeal of Pest which was reinstituted on 1 May 1861 started its activities on 1 June 1869 and in spite of its feudal framework it adjudicated according to bourgeois values. Its ensuing presidents were István Fábry, Miklós Szabó, Miklós Mihajlovits, dr. Károly Vajkay, Bódog Czorda, Sándor Vértessy, Adolf Oberschall and Ferenc Csathó, and it functioned until its partition on 4 May 1891. In 1891 president dr. Károly Vajkay was appointed president of the newly established Royal Court of Appeal of Budapest as well and later on of leaders of the courts of appeal Miklós Szabó (1888-1905) and Adolf Oberschall (1906-1908) became presidents of the Curia. Article 2 of Act LIX of 1881 merged the two departments of the Curia as from 1 January 1882: "With regard to the jurisdiction of both royal tables, the highest judicial authority is hereby vested in the Royal Hungarian Curia in Budapest." With Act XXXVIII of 1884 the offices of the Lord Chief Justice and the President of the Curia were separated. Béla Perczel, the former vice-president, became the assassinated Count György Majláth's successor from 27 November 1884 and he was the first president of the Royal Hungarian Curia who was no longer Lord Chief Justice at the same time.

Alajos Hauszmann was ready with the plans of the present day building of the Municipal Court in 1884 but it was built only in 1887. The building provided place for several legal forums. It is known from Hauszmann's biography that Teofil Fabiny, Minister of Justice commissioned him to draw up the plans of the Royal Curia as well, the actual construction of which started in 1983. Meeting the requirements, the building was completed by the festival of the millennium. The last stone of it was put to its place by Franz Joseph on 6 October 1936. (Other sources point out the period between 1891 and 1897 as the time of construction.)

Act XXV of 1980 decentralised the royal courts of appeal creating eleven courts in place of two. The revolutions that followed World War I brought about temporary modifications in the system of the courts while the Trianon Peace Treaty resulted in fundamental changes: the number of the royal courts of appeal was reduced to 5, the number of the royal tribunals fell to 67 and that of the primary provincial district courts to 150. Following the above mentioned presidents, the Supreme Court of bourgeois Hungary was headed by Antal Günther (1909-1920), Gusztáv Tőry(1920-1925), Andor Juhász (1925-1934), István Osvald (1934-1937), Géza Töreky (1937-1944) and during the pro-fascist Szálasi era Jenő Szemák (1944-1945). The last president of the Hungarian Curia was István Kerekess (1945-1949), during its dissolution it was led by vice-president Ödön Somogyi. By 1947-1948 domestic conditions, including the administration of justice and the conditions of the administrators of justice, entirely changed. Act XX of 1949, the new Constitution of the People's Republic of Hungary ruled on the new judicial structure, referring to the tribunals as county courts, to the courts of appeal as high courts and to the Hungarian Curia as the Supreme Court of the People's Republic. The new highest judicial organ held its first plenary meeting on 18 November 1949 in the building planned by Hauszmann. However, judges could not stay here long, in 1953 the Judicial Palace was given over first to the Historical Museum of Hungarian and International Workers' Movement, then to the Museum of Ethnography, afterwards to the National Gallery and all the while as co-tenants the Workers' Movement Institute of the Hungarian Workers' Party (and its legal successor) and for a short period a department of the National Archives were also placed in the building.

At the beginning the new Supreme Court was led by two vice-presidents, Ödön Somogyi (1949-1950) and Péter Jankó (1950-1953). The first president was Erik Molnár (1953-1954), his successors were József Domokos (1954-1958), Mihály Jahner-Bakos (1958-1963), József Szalay (1963-1968) and Ödön Szakács (1968-1980). Jenő Szilbereky (1980-1990) was the last president of the Supreme Court of the Hungarian People's Republic and the first one of that of the Hungarian Republic. Under his presidency, at the beginning of 1981 he managed to move the judiciary from the Buda side of Chain bridge to Markó street, into the building which had earlier housed the Ministry of Heavy Industries. This palace was built based on Sándor Fellner's plans of 1912. From 1918 it housed the Ministry of Justice, from 1945 the Ministry of Internal Affairs and afterwards it was used by the Ministry of Heavy Industries, the National Supervisory Committee of Technics and the Mining Inspectorate. Since September 1981 the building has housed exclusively the Supreme Court and the Prosecutor-General's Office. After Szilbereky's retirement, Zoltán Nagy was acting head for a short period, filling the presidential vacuum, and following the parliamentary elections in 1990 the new parliament elected Pál Solt as president of the Supreme Court in 1990 and repeatedly in 1996.

Neither in the 19th, nor in the 20th century could Hungarian supreme jurisdiction function independently of political turbulence. Judges had to render decisions in matters of political nature, they were involved in procedures against party and state leaders of various convictions and the expected final decision of these cases was often suggested. This was the case before and after World War I and the revolutions and likewise before and after World War II. Supreme Court judges could not withdraw themselves from political cases, from the sanction following 1956 or later on from the so-called restitution procedures conducted in several waves. The administration of justice from 1945 which served the creation and protection of the Stalin-type regime is appropriately characterised by the three so-called cassation acts which provide for the annulment of any unlawful decision issued between 1948 and 1989 (regardless whether which court at which instance passed the unlawful decision). In 1934 the then president of the Curia, dr. Andor Juhász said: "As soon as a judge has to adjust his judgement to political and social trends, to the preference of the executive power or to that of any domineering contentious party instead of his own personal imperative, he ceases to be a judge." A decade later this ars poetica lost its validity for a long time. An example of the apocalypse could be the fate of the last president of the Curia who led the institution temporarily from 9 April 1945 and then became its president on 27 September until his retirement in January 1949. On 13 August 1954 the 76-year old dr. István Kerekess was arrested by state security officials and was released on 4 November. On 11 December 1954 in its final judgement the Municipal Court sentenced him to two year and three month long imprisonment as the accused of the case Fuddi Otmár and others. He was in prison from 1 September 1955 to 14 April 1956. On 22 April 1996, 33 years after his death the Municipal Court declared its unlawful decision void.

In order to implement the Fundamental Law of Hungary, effective as of 1 January 2012, Act CLXI of 2011 on the organization and administration of the courts, as well as Act CLXII of 2011 on the status and remuneration of judges aim at the elimination of the problems mentioned above, moreover at striking a new path providing an up-to-date and efficient system of courts and judiciary.

The explanation of the act underlines that a new system shall be established as of 1 January 2012, where the administrative and the professional competences are clearly separated: the task of central administration of courts shall be performed by the President of the National Office for the Judiciary, while the President of the Curia shall solely be responsible for professional leadership. An important element of the system is the National Judicial Council (NJC), elected by judges and consisting exclusively of judges, which performs mainly control functions. The competences of the re-established Curia have significantly been widened. Its first President was Dr. Péter Darák who held office between 1 January 2012 and 1 January 2021. Its incumbent President is Dr. András Zs. Varga who took office on 2 January 2021.