Is Poland modernising the judiciary or destroying it? | Euronews answers

Is Poland modernising the judiciary or destroying it? | Euronews answers
Copyright Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS
Copyright Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS
By Alasdair Sandford
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The Polish government's move to retire Supreme Court judges at 65 threatens to escalate the row with Brussels over judicial independence.


The head of Poland’s Supreme Court is refusing to stand down in the latest dispute over judicial reforms that have pitched Warsaw into a legal battle with Brussels.

The country’s right-wing government claims its measures are about efficiency and modernisation. Critics accuse it of an assault on the judicial system's independence to cement its own power.

What is the latest row about?

New government legislation came into force at midnight on Tuesday, obliging Supreme Court judges to retire at 65 instead of 70.

It affects more than a third of judges in Poland’s top court, with some 27 out of 72 facing early retirement.

The head of the Supreme Court, Malgorzata Gersdorf, is refusing to comply. Under the new measure, she had been told to stand down on Tuesday.

The 65-year-old Chief Justice had vowed to turn up for work as usual on Wednesday, which she duly did, declaring outside the court building that she was there to “protect the rule of law”.

She says Poland’s constitution guarantees she should remain in her post until 2020, and refused to seek an extension for her mandate from President Andrzej Duda as that would amount to “subordination”.

Critics see the reform as the latest in a series of government measures aimed at politicising the judiciary.

The ruling conservative government plays down the reform, saying that parliament has the right to determine the retirement age of judges.

What else has the government done to the judicial system?

After winning the parliamentary election in 2015, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party set about increasing its control over the judiciary, passing a series of laws.

It has passed legislation that gives it control over the Constitutional Court, which has the power to veto laws, and the National Council of the Judiciary — the body that nominates judges.

Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro — also the prosecutor-general — has used another law to change about 20% of court presidents and their deputies.

The government argues the reforms are about making the courts more efficient. There are complaints that legal cases take too long and that some judges are corrupt.

Poland’s prime minister says the reforms help sweep away remnants from the pre-1989 communist era. Mateusz Morawiecki has said he believes in the rule of law, but the mentality of judges from that period is to protect their own interests.

How has the European Union responded?

The European Commission sees the Polish government’s actions as a threat to the rule of law, incompatible with EU values by eroding the separation of powers and undermining judicial independence.

On Monday (July 2) it launched legal action, which could lead to a decision in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the imposition of financial penalties.

The Commission earlier began a legal case last December, invoking Article 7 of the European Union Treaty — a procedure which could see Poland stripped of EU voting rights.

It has been in talks with the Polish government over the issue since early 2016.


What is the wider significance for the EU?

There are increasing concerns in the bloc over some countries’ alleged contempt for the rule of law — and what to do about it.

Countries seeking to join the EU are tested on their respect for European values, but once admitted they face relatively few constraints.

There have been attempts by ruling parties in both Poland and Hungary to increase political control over state institutions.

The EU is considering possible curbs on development funding for countries who move towards authoritarianism — a move which could hit Poland hard as the biggest net beneficiary of EU funds.

However, Brussels has been accused of acting too slowly and ineffectively against Warsaw — failing to apply the sort of sanctions over democratic values that it imposes over commercial rules and standards.

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