29th Sep 2023

Top EU court rules Poland's court reforms 'infringe law'

  • The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling on Monday is final, which means Poland now has to amend its judicial overhaul or face new financial penalties (Photo:
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The EU's top court ruled on Monday (5 June) that a 2019 Polish judicial reform violated EU law, serving another legal blow to the Warsaw government which also faced mass protests on Sunday.

The ruling is yet another legal defeat on the (now replaced) disciplinary chamber for the judiciary, which was set up to discipline judges that criticised the government of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party.

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The European Court of Justice (ECJ) said Poland's judicial reform infringes EU law because it undermines the right to have access to an independent and impartial judiciary.

"The measures thus adopted by the Polish legislature are incompatible with the guarantees of access to an independent and impartial tribunal previously established by law," the court's statement said.

"Polish justice reform of December 2019 infringes EU law," the court stressed, adding that "the value of the rule of law is an integral part of the very identity of the European Union as a common legal order."

The Polish chamber has been repeatedly criticised, by the EU Commission and civil society organisations, as a political tool to exert control over the judiciary.

The ECJ said it had the right to monitor compliance with the rule of law, effective judicial protection, and the independence of the judiciary in member states — countering Polish arguments of sovereignty.

The ECJ ruling also struck down another part of that disciplinary system introduced in 2020, and dubbed by critics as the 'muzzle law'.

This allowed judges to be punished for refusing to accept the validity of judicial reforms and for questioning the status of other judges appointed under those reforms.

The ruling also challenged the obligations for judges to publish online declarations on membership in associations, non-profit foundations or political parties, saying it violated their right to privacy.

The ECJ's decision automatically stops the fines which the commission set out for Poland as penalties for disregarding an earlier provisional measure by the ECJ to close down the disciplinary chamber.

Poland was due to pay a record €1 million a day since October 2021, which was reduced to half a million euros since April 21 of this year after the disciplinary chamber was replaced with a "chamber of professional responsibility."

The total bill for Poland is €556m, of which the commission has deducted €360m from transfers of EU funds to Poland.

Monday's ECJ ruling is final, which means Poland now has to amend its judicial overhaul or face new financial penalties.

The judicial measures, which the Polish government calls reforms and insists are necessary to purge influence from the communist era — which ended in 1989.

The measures have been met with criticism from the EU, which has put Poland under the so-called Article 7 sanctions probe, and blocked access to €35bn EU funds under the Covid-19 recovery money.

Weekend protest

Warsaw faced a new round of criticism by the US and the EU last week for another law that could keep political opponents from holding public office.

The EU Commission has said it could take action against Poland after lawmakers approved a new commission which could bar people from public office for links to Russia. The new body is set to probe alleged Russian interference between 2007-2022.

However, critics say the panel, which will be dominated by government MPs, is designed to attack opposition leader and former prime minister Donald Tusk, dubbing the legislation 'Lex Tusk'.

On Sunday, the opposition centre-right Civic Platform organised a demonstration to mark the 34th anniversary of the first democratic elections in 1989.

Hundreds of thousands of protestors also criticised the government at the rally. Organisers estimated that 500,000 people took part in the march, which was probably the largest in recent decades.

Tusk marched alongside Lech Wałęsa, the shipyard worker who emerged as the leader of the solidarity movement dismantling the country's communist regime and who later became Poland's president.

Poland is heading into election season in the autumn, with polls suggesting that neither the governing Law and Justice (PiS) nor Tusk's Civic Platform are likely to gain enough votes to form a government alone.

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Unlocking the €35.4bn in grants and loans allocated for Poland as part of the EU's Covid-19 fund is key for the Law & Justice (PiS) government to boost its chances ahead of the upcoming elections in the autumn.

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