EU launches legal action against Poland for undermining independence of its courts

Supreme court that verifies election results set to be filled with loyalists and judges forcibly retired

Jon Stone
Monday 02 July 2018 17:24
European Commission launches infringement procedure to protect the independence of the Polish Supreme Court

The European Commission has launched legal action against the Polish government over changes to the way judges are appointed in the country that observers say undermine the independence of its courts.

The EU’s executive sent a letter of formal notice to Poland regarding the new law, which is due to come into effect on Tuesday and which will automatically retire 27 out of 72 sitting supreme court judges against their will.

Under the legislation, one of a series of allegedly problematic changes to the country’s constitution brought in by the populist right wing government, the judges are likely to be replaced by those friendly to the ruling party.

One of the jobs of the court is to verify election results, meaning future elections will likely be overseen by ruling party loyalists.

The Commission says the change breaches Article 19(1) of the Treaty on European Union and Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights – which guarantees “an independent and impartial” judiciary.

The EU has already launched formal talks with Poland over the issue but says there is now an “urgent” and “systemic” threat to the rule of law.

A spokesperson for the European Commission says there has been “no step from the Polish side to reverse [the laws], we made the decision to launch the infringement procedure as a matter of urgency to defend the independence of the Polish judiciary.”

The Commission decided to launch this infringement procedure as a matter of urgency

European Commission spokesperson

“Given the lack of progress through the rule of law dialogue, and the imminent implementation of the new retirement regime for Supreme Court judges, the Commission decided to launch this infringement procedure as a matter of urgency,” the Commission said in its statement.

“The Polish government will have one month to reply to the Commission’s letter of formal notice. At the same time, the Commission stands ready to continue the ongoing rule of law dialogue with Poland, which remains the Commission’s preferred channel for resolving the systemic threat to the rule of law in Poland.”

Mass protests erupted across Poland last summer against the laws which some opposition figures have characterised as a step towards authoritarianism and undermining democracy.

The judges in the court will be retired by lowering the retirement age from 70 to 65. Their replacements are appointed by the National Judicial Council, which is mostly picked by the country’s parliament, in which the ruling Law and Justice party now holds a majority.

A safeguard was added to the law allowing the Polish president to prolong the term of judges by three years, but the EU says this is not a strong enough guarantee of judicial independence.

A spokesperson for the Polish government said the government was fixing a broken justice system.

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