null Equal opportunities in the courtroom – access to justice for vulnerable social groups: Challenges and solutions in Europe

The Minority Ombudsman and the association Res Iudicata - Judges for Social Consciousness are active participants in and committed supporters of the identification of access to justice issues and the development of jurisprudence through their domestic and international activities. Ensuring equal access to justice for members of vulnerable social groups, in particular children, people with disabilities, Roma or refugees, is a challenge for legislators from both a substantive and procedural perspective and requires daily attention from law enforcement officials. The phenomenon of unequal access is present in many countries across Europe, regardless of the legal context, but there are significant differences in the needs of different groups and in the tools available to compensate for them. The current social and technical challenges, in addition to the structural problems, have led to a wide range of legal and social science actors being involved in the issue and have inspired a number of solutions that can compensate for the inequality.

With this in mind, the Minority Ombudsman and the Res Iudicata Association organised an international professional conference on 8 December 2023 at the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, with the participation of national and international experts, to present the problems and emerging opportunities in the field, in order to stimulate professional dialogue and to provide an opportunity to raise public awareness and strengthen solidarity with vulnerable groups in society.


A bilingual brochure produced by the conference organisers, available for download from this link, presents the conference speakers and participants in the round table discussions. A summary of the conference can be found below.

The opening presentation was given by Minority Ombudsman Prof. Elisabeth Sándor-Szalay on the (European) concept of equal access to justice. She prefaced the event by saying that it had a direct forerunner, a successful conference organised a year ago by the Minority Ombudsman's Secretariat in cooperation with the Res Iudicata Judges' Association on the current challenges and opportunities for action against hate crime. The dialogue initiated with the Association and the professional community allowed for an exceptionally deep, problem-sensitive and interdisciplinary discussion of the topic, which has since given new impetus to professional cooperation. She drew particular attention to two side-events of the conference: the exhibition of works submitted to the drawing and literature competition "Everyday life after COVID, the world I live in", launched by the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, and the short concert by young members of the Superar international music programme during the coffee break.


She indicated that the aim of her presentation was to move away from the hard law arena and place the discourse on access to justice in a more general international context, and to highlight the main elements of some of the internationally agreed expectations that are common and agreed to a certain extent, published only in soft law documents, which take the form of expectations and recommendations at a relatively high level of abstraction, indicating the gaps in access to justice and possible directions for changes and progress that are deemed necessary for the future. She argues that access to justice is a fundamental value and a basic right widely accepted in societies that are aware of and practise the principles of functioning democracy, the rule of law, inclusive growth and equity. In her analysis, she referred to the fact that one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), target 16.3, is precisely the obligation of all relevant institutions to ensure access to justice for all – which is essential for the achievement of many other SDG targets. Reducing poverty, addressing existing inequalities and the consequences of climate change cannot be achieved without strong people-centred justice systems. The growing number of serious economic, environmental and security challenges means that justice systems have to respond to a range of old and new challenges simultaneously. For this reason, the issue of equal access to justice has become more prominent and has been at the centre of international professional dialogue over the last decade, at the level of the UN, the OECD, the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Union.

In her presentation, she highlighted two of the many relevant international documents: the so-called Graz Recommendations on Access to Justice for National Minorities, published in November 2017 by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Lamberto Zanier (OSCE HCNM), and the OECD Council Recommendation on Access to Justice and People-Centred Justice Systems. With regard to the Graz Recommendations, she stressed that they set out ten concrete principles to guide states in developing appropriate strategies and policies on access to justice for national minorities. These are key principles of the rule of law such as non-discrimination and equality, the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law, the right to due process of law, the need for legal aid and language assistance, and the right to an effective remedy. In addition, the Recommendations interpret the concept of access to justice much more broadly, going beyond the need for access to courts alone. They encourage States to establish effective and independent human rights institutions, such as ombudsman institutions, whose mandate can effectively complement that of the narrow bodies of the judiciary, and also address the composition of courts, higher courts, prosecutors' offices and law enforcement agencies to reflect the diversity of society. She also indicated that over the years, other OSCE bodies have produced various soft law documents on national minorities and access to justice, such as the "Kyiv Recommendations on Judicial Independence in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia".

The OECD Council Recommendation on access to justice and people-centred justice systems underlined that the main messages and expectations for its member states can be grouped around four major themes: the development and operation of people-centred justice, the provision of the necessary and appropriate administrative and technical infrastructure, the greater involvement and empowerment of people, and the issue of planning, monitoring and accountability in justice systems.

The second speaker was Aileen Donnelly, Judge of the Supreme Court of Ireland, who gave an online presentation entitled “A view from Ireland”. As a starting point, she explored the principles that underpin access to justice and what access to justice really is. This includes access to courts, legal representation, effective remedy, the right to a fair trial and access to legal aid, and ensuring that all these are in accordance with the rule of law. It will thus be an effective means of protecting and enforcing rights. She stressed that access to justice is a complex web of laws, procedures and services that determine our rights and obligations, and that its meaning changes with societal changes. Quoting Sinéad Gibney, a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, she said, "Access to justice is more than being able to open the courtroom door, it is about being able to engage with our legal system properly and fairly, regardless of factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, whether someone is disabled, their job or their income."


She then went on to discuss when access to justice is not being achieved: when individuals are afraid of the system and do not have access to it; when the justice system is financially inaccessible; when individuals do not have lawyers; when they do not have information or do not know their rights; when the justice system is weak. She moved on to define vulnerable and marginalised groups: those who have difficulty in asserting their rights and face barriers such as discrimination, lack of information about rights and a justice system that is difficult to access. She stressed that the definition depends to a large extent on the national context. These groups can be marginalised by social exclusion or lack of resources. Examples in Ireland include homeless people and/or people with active addictions, members of the Traveller or Roma community, racial minorities and migrants, members of the LGBTQ community, the economically disadvantaged and victims of domestic violence.

Turning to Irish court case law, she cited State (Healy) v Donoghue [1973] IR 325, Norris v Attorney General [1984] IR 36 and Norris v Ireland 10581/83 as steps towards securing constitutional rights. In the area of ECtHR case law based on the European Convention on Human Rights, she highlighted Airey v Ireland [1979] 2 EHRR 305. With regard to children's rights, she indicated that the introduction of Article 42A of the Irish Constitution and the Children's Rights and Family Relations Act 2015 was an important constitutional step in Ireland. On the provision of legal aid, she highlighted the institutional reforms in this area, such as the establishment of free legal aid advice centres as NGOs in 1974 and the establishment of a State body to fund legal aid in 1979.

On the challenges ahead, she said that any system is only as good as its accessibility to those who need it most. She stressed that continued discussion and implementation of practical measures for further improvement was inevitable, but that positive progress was possible on both an individual and systemic basis.

In the third opening lecture, Ágnes Lux, Research Fellow at the Institute of Law, ELTE Faculty of Social Sciences, HUN-REN Centre for Social Sciences, presented her thoughts on the European guarantees of child-centred justice. At the beginning of her presentation, she took stock of the expectations that might exist in a justice system – child relationship. For example, that the child wants to be informed in a way that is understandable and satisfactory to him/her about what the law is / what rules apply in his/her particular case and what legal settlement is possible. The child also wants to know what the professionals in the justice system can do for him/her and expects the professionals who come into contact with him/her to communicate with him/her in an appropriate way, both orally and in writing. In this context, children's 'accessibility' may be caused by inaccessible institutions and procedures, legal-procedural barriers (e.g. age limit), invisibility of certain children, lack of awareness of children's rights, legal environment/political climate.

She then moved on to a brief presentation of the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child (2021), which addresses children's participation in political and democratic life; socio-economic inclusion, health and education; combating violence against children and child protection; child-friendly justice, i.e. the need for justice systems in the EU to respect children's rights and needs; the challenges of the digital and information society; and the global dimension of the issue. She mentioned Directive 2016/800 on children, which sets out procedural safeguards for children suspected or accused of offences and is the fifth in a series of measures that set minimum procedural standards across the European Union (EU). Under the Directive, children have the right to legal representation and this is mandatory when a child is brought before a court for the purpose of deciding on detention. Thus, a child who has not been assisted by a lawyer during the trial cannot be sentenced to imprisonment. EU countries must also ensure that deprivation of liberty, in particular detention, is imposed only as a last resort and for the shortest possible period in the case of children. Children in detention should be kept separate from adults unless it is in the best interests of the child to do otherwise. Additional safeguards for children include being informed promptly of their rights and of the general aspects of the proceedings; informing the parent or other responsible person; and having that person present during court hearings and other stages of the proceedings; have the right to an individual assessment/needs assessment by a suitably qualified person; to a medical examination if the child is deprived of his or her liberty; to privacy in criminal proceedings; to be present in person at the trial; and to effective remedies.

In the context of child-friendly justice, she stressed the need for judges, prosecutors and other professionals involved in criminal proceedings involving children to have specific competences and to undergo specialised training. She noted that the Council of Europe's Guidelines on Child Friendly Justice, adopted in autumn 2010, have set the European agenda for children's rights. This provides a precise definition of a child-friendly model of justice, where children's rights and best interests are taken into account at all stages of administrative, criminal and civil proceedings, in an accessible, expeditious and child-centred manner, taking into account the circumstances of the case, with particular emphasis on the maturity, age and intellectual capacity of the child. In line with this, the main principles are participation, the best interests of the child, dignity, protection against discrimination and the rule of law. She also stated that the use of alternatives to the judicial process, such as mediation, diversion and alternative dispute resolution, should be encouraged where they are in the best interests of the child.

The coffee break was preceded by a highly successful performance by students from the Superar Music Programme, a free music education programme that harnesses the potential of music to empower disadvantaged children and young people to overcome socio-economic barriers and contribute to equal opportunities. It aims to support children in their personal development, helping them to discover their potential and broaden their horizons. Superar was launched in Austria in 2009. Today, it is present in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lichtenstein and Switzerland and provides free music education to more than 3,000 children of over 20 nationalities. Superar Hungary was established in 2018 as part of the international Superar network, in close professional cooperation with other organisations, but as an independent foundation. Today, 230 children from 10 different nationalities participate in the choral programme and 20 in the instrumental programme in 3 different partner schools.


The conference continued with a presentation by Szemán Felicitász Panel president judge of the Budapest-Capital Regional Court, with the title “How can you defend me? Vulnerable Clients in Civil Litigation”. Among the basic premises, the speaker mentioned that the situation of vulnerable people in the justice system is a "trump card" for society. She stressed that in Hungary civil substantive and procedural law is basically adequate, but that objective and subjective conditions are necessary for the operation of legal principles. She stressed that in the work of the judiciary, legal principles, theory and reality meet. She indicated that the most vulnerable client groups in civil adjudication are: children and people with disabilities in all proceedings, people with mental disorders in guardianship proceedings, and people in mental health crisis in proceedings related to psychiatric treatment. These persons must be guaranteed substantive legal protection, procedural protection, specialised assistance to clients, unimpeded access to justice and unimpeded procedures at all stages of the proceedings, i.e. the ability to fully assert their interests independently.

As regards the substantive protection of children, she stressed that the incorporation of international substantive law into Hungarian law is comprehensive (children's rights, parental custody, wrongful removal, enforcement of contact, child maintenance), and that the best interests of the child are the basis for all decisions in family law. The opinion of the child of full capacity must be sought and, in the case of children over 14, their consent is required for decisions affecting them. There is detailed international and national legislation on the procedural protection of children. Children should be provided with objective assistance, including the possibility for the child to express his or her views. It is compulsory to follow the protocol for the procedural hearing of children. She stressed the procedural possibility of rapid judicial crisis management (interim measures). In the context of special "client management" of children, the she mentioned the role of the child hearing rooms, the training of judges (trauma avoidance, trust, learning to give an uninfluenced opinion) and the fact that the responsibility for the decision should not be placed on the child. Critical points in family law litigation concerning children were the role of time (procedural and crisis management), the shortage of competent psychological experts, the overload of child welfare centres providing assisted (supervised) contact, and the limited availability of out-of-hours assisted contact. In addition, family law offences are becoming more serious.


Turning to the protection of persons with disabilities, she spoke about the role of the CRPD and the Act XXVI of 1998 on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Ensuring their Equal Opportunities. There is a need for a barrier-free building, but it is also important to "sensitise" the proceedings: specialised assistance for a particular impairment, i.e. the judge must be trained and competent in all areas (hearing, visual impairment, people with motor disabilities). Only in this way can the proceedings be made comprehensible to the limitations of the person concerned, ensuring full meaningful participation. This requires empathy and the continuous development of client handling techniques.

Speaking about the substantive legal protection of persons with mental disability in guardianship proceedings, she indicated that the Civil Code has brought the regulation of guardianship of adults closer to the CRPD requirements, and Act CLV of 2013 provides for assisted decision-making. She stressed that anyone can find themselves in this situation in their lifetime. She indicated that in deciding between guardianship or supported decision-making, the judge weighs the opinion of the psychiatric expert, so the professional and legal issues are intertwined. She also pointed out that disqualification is a particularly sensitive issue requiring judicial discretion. Turning to the procedural protection of persons with mental disorder in guardianship proceedings, she spoke about the Curia’s jurisprudence analysis and the obligation to provide information appropriate to the mental state of the person concerned. She stressed the role of the guardian advocate, who acts as an impartial and expert facilitator, the importance of a personal hearing by the court and the mandatory examination by a forensic psychiatric expert.

On the subject of assisting clients in guardianship proceedings, she also mentioned the importance of the analysis of case law in the courts and the methodological guide for participants in the proceedings. She stressed the need for training in the development of hearing techniques and communication with clients with mental disorders. Equally important is the provision of specialised hearing venues, patience on the part of the presiding judge and, in general, the need to ensure that the due process of law is respected (including in the drafting of decisions).

The next topic was the dilemmas for the judge in applying guardianship, such as whether it is a question of law or an aim to resolve the life situation of the person concerned. It is also the judge's task to interpret human dignity and the right to self-determination in all cases, as well as the question of ageing with dignity. She stressed that the shortcomings of the social care system cannot be made up for by placing people under guardianship and that professional guardians are overburdened. On the issue of trusteeship, she mentioned the dilemma of whether it should aim to protect assets or provide quality care for the trustee.

Moving on to the protection of people in mental health crisis in psychiatric cases, she spoke of the need to examine the justification for admission to emergency treatment, the imposition of compulsory psychiatric hospitalisation and the review of its maintenance. Particular caution is required when deciding to admit a person to a psychiatric institution against his or her will. Among the critical points of client protection, with regard to substantive legal protection, it was mentioned that the legislation is acceptable and that the definition of direct threatening and threatening behaviour is appropriate. She indicated that the basics of procedural protection are in place, such as jurisdiction, non-litigation, guardian ad litem, expert, hearing, formal decision and appeal. However, there is a lack of regulation as regards the content of the application, the remedies, the powers of the administrator, the mandatory content of the expert opinion, the communication of the decision, the way in which the right of appeal is exercised and the comments on the appeal. As regards the objective and subjective conditions of the procedure, she pointed out that the court holds on-site hearings in the hospital, which means at least 5 hospitals in the capital on a daily basis, on a continuous basis. Thus, the number of cases per day is very high and communication with a client in mental crisis requires a lot of time. Unfortunately, there are few forensic psychiatric experts available on secondment, even though this procedure is the most serious restriction of personal liberty in civil cases and this is one of the most vulnerable client groups.

On the questions of the future, she mentioned the questions of whether electronic proceedings will be barrier-free, what will be the role of artificial intelligence in the judiciary, what is the future of supportive, personalised client management, where is the importance of client management skills in the process of becoming a judge, and what is the place of vulnerable groups in the real values of society.

The presentation by Anna Adamska-Gallant, Polish lawyer and Head of Unit of EU Pravo Justice Ukraine's Justice Reform Unit, was entitled Defending the Weak – Justice's Response to Human Rights Challenges and Conflicts. In her introduction, she underlined that war crimes and crimes against humanity prosecutions are the subject of events in which thousands of people have often suffered. They are all victims, as their fundamental rights have been effectively violated, but very few have the opportunity to present their version of events in an investigation to punish the perpetrators, and only a few are allowed to appear in court. Witnesses' participation in international criminal proceedings can pose a significant risk to their well-being, which can be affected both by their own personal characteristics and by external factors such as pressure from their own ethnic group or threats from perpetrators and their supporters.

On the scope of the procedures, she stressed that the testimony of vulnerable witnesses usually relates to only a selected fraction of a comprehensive situation (facts) that the international community considers to require justice. In view of the huge number of victims of this type of crime, it is not possible to hold accountable all the perpetrators of the crimes committed and consequently to compensate all the victims. The principle of prosecutorial opportunism therefore prevails in proceedings before international tribunals. This is primarily due to the need to focus available forces and resources on those who have directed the crimes, i.e. those who have held key positions in the power apparatus or military hierarchy. As a result, the majority of defendants before international and hybrid tribunals were not direct perpetrators of the crimes committed, as they were not involved in the physical implementation of the elements of the crimes. Military commanders with command authority are also an important group of defendants.

She stressed that gathering evidence for crimes that are tried in international courts is a complex process. Those who are called to testify against persons accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity have the responsibility not only to establish the guilt of the perpetrators, but also to contribute to the version of history that is generally accepted by the international community as the closest to the truth. Many of them are 'vulnerable witnesses' for whom participation in international criminal proceedings is personally traumatic, which may be related to: reliving the atrocities they have experienced; the enormous pressure from their own social group; threats to their safety from the accused and their supporters; and, finally, the disappointment when the outcome of the proceedings does not satisfy their sense of justice. The international community recognises both the threats to the well-being of individual witnesses and the need to provide them with special protection, which requires specific organisational and procedural commitments.

The notion of "vulnerable witness", although not included in the legal instruments establishing international and hybrid courts, is well outlined in the internal rules governing the functioning of these bodies and in their jurisprudence. The most complete definition of this category, the term "vulnerable witness", has been adopted in proceedings before the International Criminal Court (ICC). According to Rule 94a of the ICC Rules of Procedure, a vulnerable witness is a person who is at increased risk of psychological harm or who has psychosocial or physical difficulties affecting his or her ability to appear before the court. The vulnerability of such a person may be the result of a variety of factors, including: factors related to his or her person, e.g. age (child, older person), personality, impairment (including cognitive impairment), mental illness or psychosocial problems (e.g. resulting from trauma or lack of social support); factors related to the nature of the offence, in particular sexual and gender-based violence, violence against children, torture or other crimes involving significant violence; factors related to particular circumstances, such as, inter alia, significantly increased stress and anxiety due to displacement or relocation, fear of reprisals, or adjustment difficulties due to cultural or other differences. Vulnerable witnesses are affected by a variety of factors that are common to cases involving war crimes and crimes against humanity. These primarily affect the witness's willingness to testify and may also influence the manner and content of testimony. Awareness of these factors is important for witness practitioners as they can better counter the resulting risks, including the more or less deliberate misrepresentation of the content of the testimony. These include: trauma suffered by vulnerable witnesses; collective memory; the so-called culture of shame; and pressure and intimidation. In addition, an important element in determining a witness's willingness to testify is the motivation that drives the witness, which can have a number of causes.

The speaker also addressed the specific situation of victims of sexual violence. Despite the fact that victims of sexual violence have to face the possibility of negative reactions even from those closest to them, some of them choose to testify not only in pre-trial proceedings but also later in court. In this respect, an important motivation for them is to prove that the rape was part of a wider strategy and not just an isolated incident involving a single victim. For them, uncovering the truth also means that rape is not a shame for the victim, but for the perpetrator. Witnessing is also motivated by a desire to protect other women and girls from similar acts and to get war criminals off the streets, which they saw as a necessary condition for restoring law and order. These women have understood that keeping the perpetrators of the most serious crimes at large free makes them heroes and role models, especially for young men.

As regards witness protection measures, she pointed out that in international criminal practice, neither the list of measures for the protection of vulnerable witnesses nor the procedures for their application are clearly defined. International and hybrid courts provide support to vulnerable witnesses through the so-called Victim/Witness Support Unit (VWU). The support provided by the VWU includes logistical assistance, access to information for the witness and psychological care if needed. International and mixed courts allow for so-called proofing, which usually consists of preparing witnesses for court appearance by discussing the content of the witness statement. However, in the absence of clearly defined rules on proofing, there is a risk that the preparation of a witness for testimony may involve so-called coaching, i.e. directing the witness on how to present certain content, which deprives the testimony of its spontaneity and may lead to misleading statements. The relevant rules should have the status of mandatory procedural rules in this respect, leaving no room for interpretation that would allow the parties to practice coaching.

The last presentation before the lunch break was given by Attila Lápossy, Senior Advocate General of the AJBH, on “What can we learn from the Ombudsman's practice in the protection of children's rights”. He began his presentation by outlining the paradox of the ombudsman as a rule of law, highlighting the tension between the idea of the institution and the day-to-day handling of complaints, and between the principle of the rule of law as a rule of law and the broad possibilities of the ombudsman's role. He then analysed the potential of the relationship between the courts and the functioning of the ombudsman institution, stressing that both sides can learn from the other. In this context, he also mentioned the protection of children's rights, pointing out that these are real rights, not gestures, requiring interdisciplinary knowledge and that the logic of the specialised field must be brought into line with the logic of fundamental rights. He indicated that the Ombudsman's work on children's rights should be based on an examination of the violation/threat to fundamental rights rather than on the legality of the rights. Consideration should be given to the interests of both the complainant and the child, as these two sides may differ. Of course, the best interests of the child, his or her right to protection and care must always be safeguarded, as well as the rule of law, legal certainty, the right to a fair hearing and the right to a remedy in the specific proceedings.


He concluded his presentation with recent examples from the practice of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, mentioning case AJB-276/2023 on the care of children in foster care in child protection; case AJB-587/2023. Case AJB-51/2023 on the regulation of the care and education of children with special educational needs in separate groups in day-care centres.

Following the lunch break, two sessions of round table panel discussions were held to allow experts on each of the narrow topics to discuss their views. The Hungarian-language expert panel focused on the situation of children. Beáta Borza, Head of Department of the AJBH, welcomed the participants of the round table discussion and raised the question whether the support needs of children are currently being identified.

According to Mária Herczog, sociologist and international expert on children's rights, no, one of the reasons being that in many cases adults do not even consider their own needs to be met, so it is not evident that children's needs are considered as such. As a sociological approach, she explained that the division of responsibilities between the family and the state in this area is unclear, with an increasing emphasis on the need to meet the needs of parents alone, who are increasingly expected to fulfil the role of parent, often without adequate support. It is therefore important to define responsibilities.

Orsolya Szeibert, a professor at ELTE, pointed out, in the context of family law adjudication, that parents and their responsibilities always come first when children's rights are at stake. For example, in the case of parental custody, it is debatable whether the court can interfere in the parents' agreement on this issue. She stressed the importance of the court taking a position in the best interests of the child. However, the most important key issue is to empower parents to make responsible decisions about their child.

Judge Ibolya Hirtling spoke about cases of parental responsibility and irresponsibility, and stressed the need to support parenting. In her view, the legal system has changed a lot in the last decades in a positive direction regarding the interests and rights of children. In addition, there has been a positive change of approach in both the application of the law and legislation. She also stressed the importance of training in this field.

Police Lieutenant Colonel Csilla Nagygyőr, Head of the ORFK, spoke about the new institutions used in the investigative phase of criminal proceedings, such as the interrogation by an expert adviser. She also underlined the importance of training courses, where members of staff can learn child-centred questioning techniques and interrogation methods.

Regarding the situation of children in state care, Péter Farkas Director of the Budapest-Capital Child Welfare Centre said that the current system cannot fulfil its role in meeting children's needs. Access to care is not based on care needs. On the positive side, he highlighted the creation of the Listening and Therapy Centres, currently five centres in the country where child-centred listening sessions can be carried out by specialist counsellors.

Mária Herczog added that, summarising the results of an international analysis, the situation of EU countries in terms of children's rights is worrying, as resources are insufficient, needs are not met, professionals are poorly paid in all areas (education, health, etc.). On the issue of responsibilities, she mentioned that the EU published last year a Caring Strategy reflecting on day care for young children and home care for the chronically ill and elderly.

The situation in schools was also discussed, with participants talking about segregation, digitalisation and digital rights. Csilla Nagygyőr added that this problem is also reflected in the police, with a lot of prosecutions going on, for example, in relation to online sexual exploitation. She stressed that a round table discussion on the subject had been launched with the participation of several authorities, with the participation of children.

In the context of children's participation, Orsolya Szeibert presented an initiative launched some time ago, where judges spoke in school classes on criminal and civil procedure law and practical issues. This continues today in the context of Res Iudicata, which gives children lectures on their rights, responsibilities and a range of other issues that affect them, in order to develop legal awareness.


In parallel to the panel discussion on the situation of children, the English-language round table discussion on the situation of refugees was held, where the guests shared their professional experiences.

The discussion was moderated by Adrienn Laczó, a forensic judge and member of the Res Iudicata Association's board. The panel discussion followed the refugees' journey from the moment of arrival in a safe country to the assessment of their application for recognition, with a special focus on vulnerable groups. At the beginning of the discussion, participants summarised the legal framework and the main conventions protecting the right to asylum, with a particular focus on the principle of non-refoulement.

Helena Behr, UNHCR Senior Protection Officer, underlined that the UNHCR's main task is to monitor the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, in particular the enforcement of Article 35 by States.

Following a presentation on the regulations in force in their home countries, all the experts noted that although they face problems of a different nature, many similarities can be found in the challenges they face with refugees. Among the main problems and difficulties mentioned were the new and constantly changing legislative environment, the lack of respect for international conventions and EU rights, the wrong development of asylum systems, and the low number of appropriate professionals and staff dealing with cases. Among the challenges listed, they cited the existence of legislation in several states that allows for refoulement, the systematic detention of refugees, or inappropriate procedures for vulnerable groups, giving examples from the states where they operate.

Dorottya Juhász, Judge of the Budapest-Capital Regional Court, noted that the Hungarian asylum system functioned well until the 2015 refugee crisis, although, as the previous speakers pointed out, the system had its shortcomings. Several of the Hungarian asylum rules have sparked European debate, such as the creation of transit zones. Another problematic procedure mentioned was the 'embassy procedure', under which no asylum application can be lodged on the territory of Hungary. Asylum procedures could only be initiated at the country's embassies in Belgrade and Kiev. The Luxembourg court found the procedure to be contrary to EU law, stating that fair treatment of asylum seekers must be ensured.

Matilde Betti, a judge at the Bologna Tribunal, indicated that one of the problems in Italy, apart from the shortcomings of the asylum system, is the lack of adequate training for judges and the low number of judges dealing with asylum law. The judge pointed out that the country provides many guarantees to safeguard the independence of the judiciary, but that the constant amendment of politically sensitive immigration legislation has created conflicts, making it difficult to comply with the rules while respecting the provisions laid down in the Italian Constitution.

Commenting on Poland's asylum system, Łukasz Mrozek, a judge in Poland and member of the Iustitia Polish Association of Judges, said that a kind of "double standard" was being applied in the country. As long as most refugees face similar difficulties as a refugee arriving in Hungary, refugees crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border have access to the procedure and are guaranteed the conditions required by the Conventions. The panellists agreed that in the case of vulnerable groups such as children, unaccompanied minors, members of the LGBTQ community, or elderly persons, the role of the state in the early identification of these refugees is important. In many cases the problem lies in the fact that these persons are not identified and do not receive adequate attention and support. For vulnerable refugees, it is particularly important to use professional and personalised assistance methods, with particular attention to avoid retraumatisation.

Zsolt Szekeres, Chief Legal Officer of the Helsinki Committee, stressed that compared to the situation before 2015, the Hungarian legislation has clearly gone against European law – and specifically the Charter of Fundamental Rights – by making it impossible for asylum seekers who are intercepted at the border to apply for asylum and by forcibly returning all to Serbia without exception. A further serious problem is that in many cases the procedure involves police violence against refugees. He pointed out that despite the Hungarian legal environment, which is contrary to the fundamental rights of asylum seekers, the Helsinki Committee has brought and won numerous cases to enforce the rights of deportees both before Hungarian courts and the ECtHR, which have ruled that forcible returns are not only contrary to EU law, but also to Hungarian law. However, he also said that unfortunately these proceedings often last for years and, despite being declared unlawful, do not provide a real opportunity for the effective enforcement of asylum seekers' fundamental rights in Hungary.