With the support of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe and Open Society Institute – Sofia
What is the level of corruption in the Bulgarian judicial system? Judging by what WikiLeaks has revealed, the US Government is as concerned with corruption in this sphere as it is with all branches of power in Bulgaria.
Living in Bulgaria, you may find yourself face to face with the Bulgarian judicial system. Maybe you may need to file a petition for divorce (provided, of course, you married under Bulgarian law) or sue someone who has swindled you in a real estate deal. Whatever the situation, the important thing to know is how the system works.
The Bulgarian judicial system is not founded on precedent but on laws passed by parliament. Jurisdiction takes place at three levels: a case goes to a first instance court, and then, if needed, to two courts of appeals.
In the first instance, in cases such as divorce, adoption, or a commercial or a civil action involving claims for up to 10,000 leva, you must turn to the regional court. There are 113 regional courts in Bulgaria, and a case is tried in that one whose jurisdiction covers the region in which the defendant (or the defendant institution) is registered. In the case of a real estate dispute, the case is tried in the court which has jurisdiction over the land where the real estate is.
Appealing judgements is one of the most frequent practices in Bulgaria, and everyone who is dissatisfied with a court's ruling uses the right to appeal. The legal period for lodging an appeal before a higher court is 14 days.
District courts are the second instance courts for civil and administrative cases for actions involving up to 10,000 leva. There is a district court in each regional centre in Bulgaria and a special court for Sofia, the Sofia City Court, which has the same jurisdiction.
There are cases, however, in which district courts function as first instance courts. These cases are defined by law and include procedures such as bankruptcies, civil and administrative cases involving more than 10,000 leva and appeals of administrative orders. District courts also act as first-instance courts when crimes such as murder, rape or possession of drugs are tried.
If you want to appeal a district court ruling to a higher court, your last resort is to turn to the Supreme Court of Appeal. However, if a district court tried the case in the first instance, the appeal is heard at one of the Courts of Appeal, which are found in Sofia, Varna, Veliko Tarnovo, Plovdiv or Burgas.
For administrative cases, the last instance is the Supreme Administrative Court.
Your case may take at least three years, if it needs to go through all three instances. The most frequently cited reason for this is the shortage of judges to hear the appeals. Settling out-of-court is still not a practice that has found favour with the judiciary.
Foreigners may seek help from one further instance: the ombudsman (www.ombudsman.bg). You can turn to the ombudsman if you are dissatisfied with the performance of government or other institutions, if you feel wronged by a service provider (from water utilities to educational institutions) or if a court is unduly delaying your case.
Of course, you should be aware that sometimes your adventures in the Bulgarian judicial system may cost you more than just time. Recently 50 Britons protested in front of the Bulgarian Embassy in London. They had bought apartments in a luxury residential complex, Chetiri Sezona, or Four Seasons, in Bansko, but were unable to use them because one of the co-owners, the Bulgarian company Zekom, was blocking access to the complex. In March the Britons stormed into their properties and had the locks changed. Zekom is now suing them. According to the Britons' lawyers, the Bulgarian court should turn down Zekom's claim, as it was filed in contravention of the legal period.
The Britons decided that their only remaining option was to turn directly to the Bulgarian government so they filed a petition and held their protest in front of the embassy.