EU sets Poland new ultimatum in judicial freedom case

Didier Reynders on 25 January 2021. [Europe by Satellite]

The European Commission on Wednesday (27 January) gave Poland a month to halt the work of a disciplinary chamber accused of posing a threat to judicial independence, after Warsaw ignored earlier complaints.

The government-appointed chamber, created in 2017 to sanction judges, is one of many controversial legal reforms introduced by Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party since it took office in 2015.

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“The Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court continues to take a grip on Polish judges and threatens their independence,” EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders said in a statement.

“I am determined to take strong action to ensure that all courts in the European Union can exercise their powers in full independence as required by EU law.”

The EU executive gave Poland a month “to take the necessary measures to comply with EU law” or warned it could again take Warsaw to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

“Today’s decision is a further step, which I am confident will bear fruit,” Reynders said.

The move from the EU is part of an “infringement procedure” it launched in April against Poland’s legal reforms, the fourth challenge lodged by Brussels since the conservative government began seeking oversight of the work of judges.

“The Commission considers that Poland violates EU law by allowing the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court – the independence and impartiality of which is not guaranteed – to take decisions, which have a direct impact on judges and the way they exercise their function,” Wednesday’s statement said.

“The mere prospect for judges of having to face proceedings before a body whose independence is not guaranteed creates a ‘chilling effect’ for judges and can affect their own independence.”

The continued functioning of the body is already a source of contention as the ECJ ordered Poland in April to suspend the chamber, pending a final ruling, over questions regarding its impartiality.

The PiS argues the reforms to the legal system are necessary to tackle corruption in a judiciary still haunted by communism but opponents at home and abroad say they pose a threat to the rule of law.

In 2017, the European Union launched unprecedented proceedings against Poland over the reforms that could see its EU voting rights suspended.

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