Advancing the integrity of Moldova’s justice system

The landslide victory of the opposition candidate, Maia Sandu, in Moldova’s presidential elections in November 2020 signaled a decisive change in the country’s direction. Sandu, who favours closer ties with the EU, won the run-off by harnessing voters’ anger and exhaustion with political scandal and endemic corruption. ‘Moldovans need a state that does not steal, but protects its citizens’, she said, referring to the theft of $1billion from Moldovan banks in 2014-15.

Olimpia Gribincea knows only too well that corruption is a deep seated societal problem with consequences for governance and the economy but has always felt that for Moldova, the greatest tragedy is the corruption within the judiciary. As a senior legal adviser for the past 15 years to the ABA Rule of Law Initiative, which, among other things, is dedicated to legal reforms related to anti-corruption in Moldova, Olimpia has made significant contributions to help her country advance these reforms. Her main focus has been consolidating the capacity of the justice system (which includes the prosecution service and legal profession as well) to become independent, fair and accountable.

Moldova does now have a comprehensive legal framework for fighting corruption crimes but it’s been hard won.  Cooperating closely at the highest level, including with the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor General’s Office, Olimpia and her colleagues worked for more than 10 years to create a good legal framework to strengthen the institutional capacity – and more importantly – the independence and transparency of the prosecution offices to investigate and prosecute high level corruption cases, free from political interference and granting of immunity.

There have been many steps along this journey.  Olimpia has been involved in the Judicial, Prosecutorial and Legal Profession Reforms Assessments performed by ABA Rule of Law Initiative in Moldova which analysed the extent to which the legal system in Moldova complied with international standards, assessed the progress of reforms and identified the system’s main strengths and weaknesses. She has also taken part in the organisational assessments of the Moldovan Bar Association and in developing recommendations regarding continuing legal education of defence attorneys as well as to the National Institute of Justice regarding curriculum development and continuous legal education delivery to judges and prosecutors.

More recently, Olimpia participated in the drafting of the Prosecution Service Strategic Development Plan for 2016-2020 as well as in the development of regulations on prosecutors’ career, performance and accountability. The aim of these regulations, if appropriately implemented, is to use objective and merit-based criteria in the appointment and promotion of prosecutors, which are crucial to the development of a modern and professional prosecution service. Olimpia was a member of the working group that drafted the Prosecutors’ Ethics Code.

Olimpia has been building the foundations of this vital work for a long time.  Back in 2012, she took part in the John Smith Trust Fellowship Programme, spending four weeks in the UK both in Scotland and England. Her aim was to learn from best practice in the UK which could help her work promoting a more ethical, effective and independent legal profession in Moldova.  In particular she wanted to know about providing good quality training programmes for defence attorneys on trial advocacy skills, human rights, ethics, and communication and inter-professional dialogue which would thus improve the quality of legal services. She also wanted to create a meaningful apprenticeship programme for future advocates in Moldova.

While in the UK, the John Smith Trust team – ably aided by the Rt Hon Sir George Reid – arranged meetings for Olimpia with relevant experts and practitioners.  Notably, she met with Professor Alan Paterson of Strathclyde University, Professor Avrom Sherr of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Michael Clancy and the team from the Law Society of Scotland and from the Scottish Law Commission she met Sir David Edward and Malcolm Macmillan.  Olimpia also had valuable meetings with Professor Lesley McAra from Edinburgh University, Iain Leitch from the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and Martin Jones at the Ministry of Justice amongst many others.

These ‘fantastic’ meetings greatly influenced Olimpia’s work and professional development back home. Based on the knowledge she gained in the UK, Olimpia’s initial successes included being able to offer training opportunities to young lawyers, strengthen the institutional capacity of the Moldovan Bar Association, publish a series of handbooks for advocates addressing important legal and administrative issues, and together with the Association of Young Lawyers, develop the initial training curriculum and the first guidebook for legal apprentices in Moldova. This guidebook was based on the Scottish system of ‘devilling’ which she had learned about in her meeting with the Scottish Bar Council and contained a separate chapter on the special characteristics of legal apprenticeship in Scotland.

And with her efforts to help create a new generation of Moldovan lawyers whose practice is built on the rule of law, Olimpia was also able to implement three year-long training and professional development programme for young legal professionals – judges, prosecutors and defence attorneys. The participants have built new bridges between the legal professions to be able to contribute together to advancing a judiciary dedicated to professionalism, ethics and civility.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Olimpia’s Fellowship Programme but reflecting today on her John Smith Trust experience, Olimpia says she sees how the opportunity came at such a crucial time for her work in legal reform and fighting corruption. “It gave me such valuable and practical insights into functioning systems which I was able to incorporate into my work in Moldova. It really provided the breakthroughs for my continuing work in this field and I will be forever grateful to the John Smith Trust for this extraordinary opportunity’.

Two areas which Olimpia has also dedicated much time and effort towards, but still has aspirations for concrete results, are those of peer review as a serious tool for assessing the quality of free legal aid and the independence of the National Integrity Agency.  She hopes that attitudes towards the increase of integrity and fight against corruption in the justice sector can change to take a longer term view – that it’s not just about counting actions implemented but more of a focus on their effectiveness and what positive change is produced over a longer period of time.

This is linked to Olimpia’s belief that for Moldova to succeed in reforming its judiciary and prosecution service, there needs to be appropriate mechanisms of continuous monitoring in order to understand and react to developments in the justice system. A great step forward would be the creation of strong and independent associations of judges, prosecutors and advocates who will be able to identify and react promptly to particular problems or shortcomings, as well as provide commentary on proposed legislation and advocate for new or improved policies within the justice system’s institutions. Such associations could in time become true promoters of professionalism and excellence in their legal professions, including through providing example, education and mentoring.

Implementing change is a long and difficult process which is often one step forward and several steps back and the changing of attitudes and embedded culture takes time and patience.  Olimpia’s work has been very difficult as often, she and her colleagues would work with different institutions and develop good ideas and regulations for a solid merit based system of recruitment and promotions in the judiciary only to have the leadership of these institutions change, the regulations annulled and the re-introduction of the old system based on favouritism.

Looking forward, Olimpia is very hopeful of the new direction her country has taken with its choice of leader and the evident desire for more functional and transparent state institutions. She continues to persevere with her work and, with ambitions to join the Constitutional Court, she has returned to Scotland for the first time since her John Smith Trust Fellowship Programme – but this time as a Chevening Scholar to do her MLitt in Legal and Constitutional Studies at the University of St Andrews!