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The Austrian Section of the International Commission of Jurists was founded in 1963 by two practising lawyers, Dr. Rudolf Machacek (who was also a member of the ICJ for many years and is currently honorary chairman of the Section) and the late Dr. Walter Schuppich (who was for a long time President of the Austrian Bar Association). The members of the Austrian Section, currently 215, come from all legal professions, in particular academics, practicing lawyers, judges, prosecutors, legal advisers and administrative legal staff from different levels.

The Austrian Commission of Jurists aims at contributing to justice, the rule of law and the promotion of fundamental rights. In the context of public debates on issues of law and legal policy the Commission understands itself as the „rule of law conscience“ of the country.

The Commission pursues its aims by organising conferences and other scientific events and by editing publications on their proceedings. Thereby the Commission intends to provide a platform for professional discussions, in particular in the areas of legal policy, the preparation and discussion of legislative drafts and the identification of shortcomings in legal processes and the justice system as well as administrative procedures. Reform projects were often presented and discussed in depth by the speakers and participants of our conferences. Such debates frequently contributed significantly to the final shape and acceptance of reform proposals and legislative drafts. Therefore, they were occasionally used as a kind of „test platform“ by the Ministry of Justice when promoting reform ideas and models.

During the 1970´s and 1980´s the Austrian Section used to invite some representatives of the civil legal community in neighbouring states (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland) to conferences in order to get into contact and exchange information with colleagues across the still existing Iron Curtain and to promote rule of law ideas. 

Scientific and legal policy events in 2010 and 2011

In 2010 the Section organised a major conference in May with the general theme „Fundamental rights in the EU“. Issues such as the accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights, the „Stockholm Programme“ in the area of freedom, security and justice, and various aspects of non-discrimination (Art 13 TEU) were debated on that occasion. In October we discussed the sensitive legal issues involved in the work of parliamentary investigatory committees with experts from Austria and Germany, i.a. the rights and safeguards of persons testifying before those committees as well as the scope and the limits of the latter´s work.

In February 2011 we invited the former (up to November 2010) UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Inhuman Treatment, Professor Manfred Nowak, to an informal discussion („fireside chat“). Nowak, who is also a member of the ICJ, informed the participants on his manifold experiences as a UN representative in numerous countries around the globe, in particular on detention and prison conditions.

From June 2nd to June 4th, 2011 the Austrian Section is organising a sizable conference on the overall theme „Criminal Prosecution on Trial“ at Lake Attersee in Upper Austria, where we expect more than 100 participants. The Austrian Code of Criminal Procedure has undergone a comprehensive reform of pre-trial proceedings which came into force in 2008. The new provisions abolished the old system of investigatory judges and fully entrusted the public prosecutor in cooperation with criminal police with the investigating authority thereby following a long-term trend in practice. On the basis of some empirical research we are undertaking a first general assessment of the practical impact of the new system. The problems involved in the investigation and prosecution of economic crime - especially fraud, fraudulent breach of trust, financial crime and money laundering - and its increasing transborder activities form another focus of the conference. The Austrian judicial authorities have met a lot of public criticism recently related to their performance in major cases of high public attention. There is even talk about a crisis of confidence in the system of criminal prosecution in general. In this context we want to shed some light i.a. on the delicate relationship between the prosecuting authorities and the media. Finally, we discuss the permanent problem of equality before the law in the field of criminal law and prosecution.

We expect a lot of interest in this conference and its highly topical issues, hoping to support the academic and practical clarification of the serious and complex problems involved in criminal investigations and prosecutions and their legal framework. The contributions of speakers and the panel discussions will be published after the conference, following a longstanding practice of the Section.

The Austrian Section is looking foward to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her establishment in 2013. A few preparations for this event are already underway. 

Some recent legal policy discussions in Austria

The implementation of the EU Directive on data retention in the field of telecommunications has, as in a number of other Member States, caused a lot of controversial discussions in public. Those debates have considerably delayed the transformation of the Directive into national law which has been adopted by the Austrian parliament only recently – already under the risk of a heavy financial sanction by the EU Commission.

The regulations for asylum procedures and migrants and their repeated amendments form an area of periodic political and legal controversy between the public administration, the political parties and the NGO community, the latter claiming human rights restrictions. Although it is now generally recognised that Austria belongs to the „countries of immigration“ and the number of applications for asylum has gone down recently, concern and anxiety for too many immigrants is still prevailing in parts of the public and the media. Against that background and with a view to the geographical position of the country, more restrictive procedures and conditions for resident permits (e.g. in terms of language abilities) are applauded by many. The often very long duration of asylum proceedings adds to the problems involved.

The endeavours of the government to restrict public debt (which is lower in Austria than in most other countries, but has been somewhat increased in the course of the world financial crisis) have affected the administration of justice as well. The resources of the judiciary have always been limited in Austria and financial constraints have caused increases of court fees and dues to a very high level. Austrian prosecutors are complaining about a lack of personnel and other resources causing delays in the conduct of complex cases. The response by the government is mainly limited to some organisational measures such as the establishment of a central prosecution authority for economic crime and corruption and to procedural simplifications which are partly seen critical by legal experts.