At the end of November 2019, the legal community of Bulgaria met in Sofia to mark the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the Convention) by the UN General Assembly, ratified by the Republic of Bulgaria by decision of the Supreme National Assembly on 11.04. 1991 (in force since 3.07.1991). The anniversary was an occasion to assess the extent to which in Bulgaria the Convention is understood, accepted and implemented in the spirit embedded in its text by the UN Member States that have adopted it.
The conference with international participation "Bulgarian Justice for Children Thirty Years After the Convention on the Rights of the Child", held on November 28-29, 2019 in Sofia, was attended by over 120 representatives of various legal professions from the country and abroad - magistrates, lawyers, academics, human rights defenders and civil society organizations. The organizers of this large-scale forum were the Bulgarian Center for Non-Profit Law Foundation (BCNL), the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the Supreme Bar Council (SACA), the Institute of State and Law at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (IDP-BAS). The event took place with the support of UNICEF Bulgaria.
The event created a space for discussion of the interpretation and application of the Convention in various civil, administrative and criminal proceedings and especially on its key principle that in any action concerning a child, his or hers "best interests" are of primary consideration (Art. 3 of the Convention). We sought answers to a number of questions, including: what is the understanding of the engaged community of lawyers in Bulgaria on these topics; what are the key points of the Convention that provide guarantees for child-friendly justice; who are the advocates for the rights of the child in the justice system.
The conference was opened with welcoming words by the official guests: Evgeni Stoyanov, Deputy Minister of Justice, Assoc. Prof. Diana Kovacheva, PhD., Ombudswoman of the Republic of Bulgaria, Miglena Tacheva, Director of the NIJ, Atty. Ralitsa Negentsova, Chairperson of the Supreme Administrative Court, Prof. Dr. Irena Ilieva, Director of IDP-BAS and Prof. Anne Skelton, Member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, moderated by Boryana Dimitrova, Alpha Research.
"We have made a big step in the development of training programs through innovative forms of integration of interactive sessions in the educational and extracurricular environment, listening to children, taking into account the specifics of children, family law, sexual exploitation of children, communication skills, child psychology. [... ] The Council of Europe encourages a multidisciplinary approach - judges, prosecutors, judicial staff, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior, the police, lawyers - to work together with minors. This requires the development of skills for recognition of the syndromes of violence against children and parental alienation and to have a systematic approach in the activities. ", Miglena Tacheva, Director of the National Institute of Justice.
"I am very glad that we are here not only to mark the anniversary of the adoption of the CRC, but also to mark the problems in the justice for children. The Bar is the one who has an immediate impression of the justice for children at all times. We must also apply the spirit of the law. Parents do not take into account that in a large number of occasions they turn their children into a bargaining chip of their interests. The Bar pays a lot of attention to the training activity. The Lawyer Training Center organizes many seminars to discuss those issues. And for interaction with all other law professionals. If we do not unite to solve the problems, then there is no way to protect the public interest, or the children, or anyone else. ", Ralitsa Negentsova, Attorney at Law, Chairperson of the Supreme Bar Council.
Assoc. Prof. Diana Kovacheva, PhD., Ombudswoman of the Republic of Bulgaria moderated a session, during which up to date examples of the case law and the legislative initiatives concerning the justice for children system were presented. Speakers in this panel were Assoc. Prof. Diana Kovacheva, PhD, Georgi Spasov from the Ministry of Justice, Assoc. Prof. Velina Todorova, PhD, ISL-BAS, member of CRC and attorney Natasha Dobreva, member of the Sofia Bar Association
"In order for the judiciary to be adapted, it must take into account the development of children. […] It is worrying that the discussion on judicial reform is at standstill. We need to focus on the problems to find solutions. We cannot skip the topic of outdated legislation, according to which a dual system operates for minors. We cannot miss the CRC's comment that the term anti-social behavior contradicts the international standards. "Assoc. Prof. Diana Kovacheva, PhD., Ombudswoman of the Republic of Bulgaria.
"The execution of the judicial act is leading. In the regime of personal contact - if the interests of the child do not coincide with the interests of the parents - the State must give priority to the interests of the children which come first, and not to the parents interests. Because in the end the children suffer the most from these cases ", Judge Genoveva Ilieva, Regional Court - Varna.
Restorative justice for children as a new, more lenient approach, compliant with international standards and the rights of the child, was considered through three perspectives - administration of justice by applying a holistic approach in court cases for children in conflict with the law (speaker - Judge Vladislava Tsarigradska, Judge in the Regional Court - Lukovit); legislation and opportunities for a new legal framework for restorative justice for children in Bulgaria (speaker - Rumen Nenkov, Judge at the Constitutional Court 2009-2018) and practical aspects and international trends (speaker - Annemieke Wolthuis, Vice-President of the European Forum for Restorative Justice). The panel was moderated by Prosecutor Daniela Masheva, Supreme Judicial Council.
"It is unrealistic to expect any of the systems to find the solutions until we have a comprehensive approach by the State on how of each the systematic elements solve the problems. Society as a whole is not sufficiently informed. In smaller communities, such as Lukovit, we get information - even municipal councilors provide assistance. Ignorance leads to fanatical fears. ", Judge Vladislava Tsarigradska, Lukovit Regional Court
"Is it useful for society for a young man to go to prison and get out of it as a trained recidivist?" Or is it better to bring him back to normal life while he is still young? People need enlightenment, "Judge Rumen Nenkov.
The Conference also put on the agenda the very important practical aspects of the work of the court, the bar and the institutions, on guaranteeing the interests of the child in parental conflicts. Prof. Masha Antokolskaya from the Free University of Amsterdam presented the current development in the Netherlands in resolving family conflicts. For the care and responsibility of the court for the child - victim of domestic violence, spoke Galya Valkova, a judge at the Sofia Regional Court, and Dr. Vladimir Sotirov, a psychiatrist. Adv. Marieta Dimitrova emphasized the "best interest of the child", which should be guaranteed at all levels in cases of conflicts between parents about the exercise of parental rights. The panel was moderated by a lawyer Valya Gigova, member of the Supreme Bar Council.
"Involving children in parental conflict is a form of violence. The role of us, the lawyers, is very important - we are the ones who lead the process and who give advice and recommendations to our clients. That is why we should all have as our main focus - the best interest of the child. The value of the legal profession is to have this mission of enlightement.” attorney Marieta Dimitrova.
At the closing of the Conference, Dr. Jane Muita, UNICEF Representative for Bulgaria, said: "Children are not like adults - and I heard that in your debates. There must be a representative between the child and the parents who can translate what the child says into the language of adults [...] When you speak, share in your personal life the experience of the courtroom or of the lawyers' actions - this is how change comes. This enlightening work is very important."
Nadia Shabani, director of the Bulgarian Center for Non-Profit Law, closed the forum with a message of gratitude to the co-organizers and all professionals who considered the topic extremely important and made efforts to have a real conversation, which will continue.
Specific recommendations were made during the Conference, to help develop the legislation and case law of implementing the standards of the Convention in Bulgaria. The partners in the initiative are committed to presenting them to the attention of the institutions in charge.
The collection of materials, which we prepared especially for the conference, in Bulgarian and English, can be downloaded here: