Polish reform erodes judicial autonomy: top court

File photo. The Chairman of the National Court Register Leszek Mazur presides the first meeting of the National Council of the Judiciary regarding the selection of candidates for the Polish Supreme Court judges in Warsaw, Poland, 23 August 2018. [Jakub Kaminski/EPA/EFE]

Poland’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday (5 December) that a new judicial council charged with nominating and disciplining judges lacks independence, calling into question the government’s court reforms.

Since taking office in 2015, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) has introduced a slew of controversial judicial reforms that it insists are designed to tackle corruption.

EU court puts legality of Polish court reform in doubt

Europe’s top court on Tuesday (19 November) ruled that Polish judges must decide on the validity of a disciplinary chamber imposed on them by the government, in a possible setback for Warsaw’s controversial judicial reforms.

But critics including top European judicial bodies argue they pose a threat to judicial independence and the rule of law.

The European Union Court of Justice (CJEU) last month asked Poland’s Supreme Court to rule whether the new KRS judicial council and a disciplinary chamber introduced as part of the PiS’s reform drive are free from political influence.

The Supreme Court concluded on Thursday that their independence was not guaranteed.

“The new KRS does not provide sufficient guarantees of independence from legislative and executive (political) bodies,” Supreme Court Justice Bohdan Bieniek told reporters after presenting the ruling.

KRS chief Leszek Mazur contested the verdict, insisting that it “would not affect the functioning of the KRS and the disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court”.

Opposition politicians and lawyers who have questioned the constitutionality of the PIS reforms hailed the Supreme Court’s decision.

Leftist opposition MP Krzysztof Smiszek called it a “devastating” blow for the PiS.

The European Commission has accused the government of threatening to undermine principles like the rule of law and judicial independence that it signed onto in 2004 when Warsaw joined the EU.

Rule of law dispute with Poland simmers on, with no end in sight

Despite expectations to the contrary, the European Commission decided not to refer the Polish Supreme Court law to the EU’s top court on Wednesday (19 September), following a meeting of EU affairs ministers that heard Poland’s arguments on Tuesday. But it does not necessarily mean a detente is on the cards.

In late 2017, the EU launched unprecedented proceedings against Poland over “systemic threats” posed by the reforms to the rule of law that could see its EU voting rights suspended.

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