By Dan Peleschuk
KYIV (Reuters) – Vira Levko, a judge in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, typically handles dozens of administrative cases and several criminal hearings every day. And she says there are others who are far busier than her.
When Levko tells colleagues abroad about her workload, they find it hard to believe.
“They don’t understand how a judge can hold so much information in their head,” she told Reuters at the Dniprovskyi district court.
Ukraine is desperately short of judges, and is kick-starting a long-delayed nationwide hiring spree to fill more than 2,000 vacancies and vet around as many sitting judges for potential malfeasance.
The ambitious effort, undertaken during the country’s war with Russia, is key to clearing a backlog of cases that has delayed justice for many Ukrainians.
It is also central to cementing the rule of law, a condition for Ukraine to one day join the European Union.
Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had signalled his desire for Ukraine to join the EU, meaning that the fight against corruption and embracing good governance became priorities.
A poll released this month by the Razumkov Centre think-tank in Kyiv suggested only 18% of Ukrainians trust the courts, the legacy of a judicial system long eroded by corruption.
The European Commission, in a 2022 memo, said “the judiciary continues to be regarded as one of the least trusted and credible institutions”.
Attempts to reform the courts after the 2014 Maidan Revolution, which toppled a pro-Russian president and set Kyiv on a pro-Western course, were only partly successful and ran into systemic resistance, watchdogs say.
Two judicial governance bodies responsible for hiring and disciplining judges were effectively frozen for years, resulting in some 2,600 vacancies, or roughly one third of the judiciary, as judges retired or were dismissed.
Court cases have piled up across Ukraine as a result. Some courtrooms have been turned into storage spaces stacked high with case files.
The regional appeals court in northeastern Ukraine’s Sumy has only four judges left out of a full staff of 35. It faces total deadlock if just two judges retire, as they currently have the right to do.
“There is not a single court in Ukraine whose workload is normal,” said Ruslan Sydorovych, deputy head of the High Qualification Commission of Judges (HQCJ), which oversees the selection of judges.
“It’s just that in some places it’s big, and in others it’s simply a catastrophe,” he said.
The war adds an additional burden, as around 100,000 alleged Russian crimes are already being investigated.
The two governance bodies were recently relaunched under EU pressure, and around 1,100 appeals and local court vacancies will be filled in the coming months.
Sydorovych described it as the first step in a “super marathon” of hiring that could take several years and likely involve up to 7,000 interviews.
Selecting judges is only part of the challenge. Some 2,000 sitting judges also require integrity checks, part of the judicial house-cleaning launched, but never finished, after Maidan.
Halyna Chyzhyk, who served on a civic advisory council that monitors judges, said the entire process was manageable but that authorities shouldn’t try to rush it.
“If the priority is on (ensuring) quality, then you’ll need to sacrifice a bit of speed, and I think Ukrainian society understands that,” she said.
Ensuring that Ukraine’s top courts, long plagued by scandal, do not become instruments for wielding political influence could prove an even tougher task.
“We have judges who helped raid billions in property, who massively violated human rights, who hold Russian citizenship and actively helped Russia in the first days of the war,” said Mykhailo Zhernakov, of the DEJURE Foundation, an NGO in Kyiv.
The Constitutional Court, in particular, drew the ire of the EU and democracy campaigners by attempting to dismantle anti-corruption reforms before the war, and its former head is wanted in connection with several criminal cases, including bribing a witness.
Oleksandr Tupytskyi, now living in Vienna according to Ukrainian media reports, has denied wrongdoing and said the cases against him are political.
The EU recommended that Kyiv pass legislation giving international experts greater say over the make-up of the Constitutional Court, which currently has five vacancies.
But that is not an instant fix, said Zhernakov.
According to DEJURE, which tracks judicial reforms, at least two recent Ukrainian appointees to the court’s selection committee were “politically affiliated individuals with questionable reputations”.
“The biggest political difficulty is to build institutions that would be independent enough,” Zhernakov said.
The overhaul of the judiciary coincides with a broader bid to crack down on corruption, as tolerance among Ukrainians for official abuse wears thin at a time when tens of thousands have died defending Ukraine’s fragile democracy.
A July survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that 89% of Ukrainians believed corruption was the most serious problem facing their country apart from the war.
Levko, the Kyiv judge, is passionate about serving the public and outspoken in particular about tackling domestic violence.
But she said high-profile scandals, including the recent arrest of the former head of the Supreme Court for taking a $2.7 million bribe, an accusation he denies, tarnish her profession and distract from the daily work Ukraine’s courts actually do.
“You know how people introduce me in intellectual circles? ‘This is Vira – she’s one of the decent judges’,” she said, lowering her voice for effect. “I’ve gotten used to it now.”
(Reporting by Dan Peleschuk; Additional reporting by Anna Dabrowska; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Gareth Jones)