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Poland's legal overhaul violates the right to have an independent and impartial judiciary, ECJ rules

The reform introduced by the Polish governments has been strongly contested by the European Commission.
The reform introduced by the Polish governments has been strongly contested by the European Commission. Copyright Alik Keplicz/Copyright 2016 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Alik Keplicz/Copyright 2016 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jorge Liboreiro
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The controversial reform has caused an intense and protracted dispute between the Polish government and the European Commission.

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Poland's judicial reform infringes upon European law because it undermines the right to have access to an independent and impartial judiciary, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has said in a highly-anticipated ruling.

"The value of the rule of law is an integral part of the very identity of the European Union as a common legal order and is given concrete expression in principles containing legally binding obligations for the member states," the judges said on Monday afternoon.

"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 ruling is an unambiguous rejection of the reform introduced in 2019 by the hard-right government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which sparked an intense dispute between Warsaw and Brussels.

The contentious reform changed the rules that govern the relations between courts, preventing judges from assessing each other's compliance with EU legal standards and questioning a tribunal's composition.

It also empowered the disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court to punish magistrates according to the content of their verdicts. Possible penalties included a reduction of salary, the temporary suspension of duties and the waiver of immunity to allow the initiation of criminal proceedings.

The chamber has been repeatedly criticised by the European Commission, the United Nations and civil society organisations as a political tool to exert control over the judiciary and weaken the separation of powers.

The Commission filed a legal case before the ECJ in March 2021 after its negotiations with the Polish government failed to deliver a satisfying result.

Warsaw struck a defiant tone and insisted the reform was necessary to purge the influence of the communist era, strengthen the apolitical character of the judiciary and crack down on corruption.

The European Court of Justice later ruled the chamber was incompatible with EU law and imposed a series of interim measures and ordered its dismantlement.

Poland's continued refusal to comply with the interim measures led the ECJ to slap a record-breaking €1 million fine per day on the country, which was reduced to €500,000 a day after the disciplinary body was replaced with a "chamber of professional responsibility."

The fine is being deducted from Poland's allocation of the EU budget and ceases to apply as of Monday.

Poland now owes €534 million, according to the European Commission, a sum accrued between October 2021, when the fine was established, and April 2023, when it was downsized.

'Risks of undue stigmatisation'

In its new ruling, which is final and cannot be appealed, the ECJ offers a total denunciation of Poland's justice reform law.

The court decries the reform's "broad and imprecise" provisions and the chilling effect it created on Polish magistrates, who were under threat of retaliation for conducting an effective review of judicial decisions.

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The ruling reaffirms the ECJ's previous position on the chamber's illegal powers and challenges the obligations related to personal data. Polish judges were required to disclose by writing their affiliation with political parties, civil associations and NGOs.

"The placing online of information relating to past membership of a political party is not, in the present case, appropriate for attaining the alleged objective of strengthening the impartiality of judges," the judges said.

The disclosure is "liable to expose judges to risks of undue stigmatisation, by unjustifiably affecting the perception of those judges by individuals and the public in general."

Reacting to the news, Didier Reynders, the European Commissioner for justice, welcomed the ruling and urged the Polish authorities to comply in full.

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"Today is an important day for the restoration of an independent justice in Poland," Reynders said in a short statement. "Any regression on the organisation of justice must be prevented."

From Warsaw, Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland's justice minister and one of the key architects behind the reform, expressed his displeasure, saying the ECJ was a "corrupt" tribunal and its decisions were not written by judges "but by politicians."

Despite its combative rhetoric, the Polish government has already tabled legislation to address the most controversial aspects of the overhaul and secure the release of its €35-billion share of the EU's COVID-19 recovery fund, which Brussels is currently withholding.

But in February, Polish President Andrzej Duda shocked the country when he chose to send the draft law to the Constitutional Tribunal for a legal review, further delaying its implementation.

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