24 February 2017 - Barely a decade ago, suggesting to judicial officers that introducing rules and obligations to declare their assets and other relevant interests and activities as part of upholding judicial integrity and preventing opportunities for corruption was met with great scepticism. Even among those few who were serving in jurisdictions where income and asset declaration systems applied to judges too, many of them did not miss any opportunity to criticize these systems as equally intrusive and useless in identifying illicit enrichment or preventing conflicts of interests.
It is therefore not surprising that neither the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct developed in 2003 and endorsed by United Nations Economic and Social Council in 2006 nor the measures for their effective implementation which were developed by the Judicial Integrity Group in 2010 made any reference to financial disclosure systems.
The United Nations Convention against Corruption contains various provisions highlighting the importance of measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations of their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts and benefits from which a conflict may result - provisions which due to the wide definition of "public official" adopted by the Convention also apply to judicial officers. The Implementation Guide and Evaluation Framework for Art 11 published by UNODC in 2015 provides further guidance on how best to put such financial disclosure systems into practice.
It thus does not come as a surprise that the issue has gained traction in many jurisdictions. In a recent publication of the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative of the World Bank and UNODC - Getting the Full Picture on Public Officials: A How-To Guide for Effective Financial Disclosure - new data is being presented suggesting that in more than half of the 161 countries covered by the study, judges and prosecutors are required to disclose their income, assets and other relevant interests and activities. In the case of Supreme Court Justices this applies already in almost 60 per cent of countries.
Judges themselves are no longer shying away from the debate. In 2016, the first study commission of the International Association of Judges on Measures to Promote Integrity and Combat Corruption within the Judiciary endorsed "the practice of declaring conflicts of interest and the avoidance or declaration by judges of any affiliation with public causes which might engender a perceived or actual conflict". It further specifically acknowledged the existence of both public and non-public registers of a judge's assets and income in a significant number of countries and agreed that "it would be a good measure to prevent corruption". At the same time the Commission stressed that "such measures were only acceptable where required by the concrete circumstances and that the measures must be proportionate to the situation that exists."
There is a real opportunity to advance this discussion, exchange experiences and learn from those jurisdictions that have introduced financial and similar disclosure systems for their judges, including to whom such disclosures are submitted and whether and under what conditions information contained in disclosures is made available to litigants, lawyers and other relevant stakeholders. The Global Judicial Integrity Network, an initiative about to be launched by UNODC with the financial support of the State of Qatar, will provide a unique platform for judges around the globe to exchange good practices, support and advise each other and to develop tools and materials aimed to guide judiciaries in their efforts to strengthen judicial integrity and preventing corruption in the justice system.