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I UNDERSTAND
English Section

Polish court must judge if new chamber independent: EU court

19.11.2019 10:30
Poland’s Supreme Court must ascertain whether its new disciplinary chamber is independent, the EU’s top court ruled on Tuesday in response to queries from Polish judges and amid concerns over the new judicial body.
Established in 1952, the Court of Justice of the European Union aims to ensure that member states comply with obligations under the blocs treaties. The top EU court also interprets EU law at the request of national courts.
Established in 1952, the Court of Justice of the European Union aims to ensure that member states comply with obligations under the bloc's treaties. The top EU court also interprets EU law at the request of national courts.Image: curia.europa.eu

The Court of Justice of the European Union added that Poland’s Supreme Court should determine on its own whether the new chamber has jurisdiction to rule on cases where judges have been retired.

"The referring court must ascertain whether the new Disciplinary Chamber of the Polish Supreme Court is independent in order to determine whether that chamber has jurisdiction to rule on cases where judges of the Supreme Court have been retired, or in order to determine whether such cases must be examined by another court which meets the requirement that courts must be independent," the top EU court said in its judgment.

The EU Court of Justice said that the new Disciplinary Chamber of the Polish Supreme Court "can only be competent to rule on cases relating to the retirement of judges of the Supreme Court if its independence and impartiality is guaranteed."

The top EU court announced its ruling on Tuesday after an adviser to the Court of Justice of the European Union said in June that a new disciplinary chamber within the Polish Supreme Court did not meet the requirements of judicial independence.

That statement by Advocate General Evgeni Tanchev came in response to queries from Poland’s Supreme Court, which had expressed doubts over the independence of the new National Council of the Judiciary and the Disciplinary Chamber elected by it.

Judges 'chosen by politicians' in some EU states: Polish PM

Poland’s prime minister was quoted as saying last week that he hoped the Court of Justice of the European Union would “issue a judgment in accordance with EU law.”

He told Poland’s PAP news agency that Article 67 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union “explicitly states that the Union must respect the various legal systems and traditions of individual member countries.”

He argued that “in the EU there are countries where judges are chosen by politicians, such as Germany; those in which judges have a voice in the process, but are in the minority, like France; or those, such as Poland, in which judges constitute the majority in the National Council of the Judiciary.”

Poland's Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said in April that new Polish measures to discipline judges were designed to fight "pathological" behaviour and were less political than those in neighbouring Germany.

Ziobro also said at the time that the new Disciplinary Chamber in Poland’s Supreme Court had been established to deal with lapses among judges, including cases of theft.

He added that previous procedures were inadequate to discipline such judges.

Row over judicial changes

In a separate case targeting the new disciplinary rules for Polish judges, the European Commission last month said it had decided to refer Poland to the EU's top court over the new regulations.

The move marked the latest step in a prolonged dispute over alleged rule-of-law breaches in Poland. It came after the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, in July launched the second stage of an infringement procedure against Warsaw over the new Polish disciplinary rules for judges.

When it started its procedure against Poland in April, the Commission argued that new rules have undermined the independence of Polish judges "by not offering necessary guarantees to protect them from political control."

New Polish rules draw flak

The Commission said in April that new Polish legal regulations made it possible "to subject ordinary court judges to disciplinary investigations, procedures and ultimately sanctions, on account of the content of their judicial decisions."

The EU's executive also said at the time that the new Polish “disciplinary regime does not guarantee the independence and impartiality of the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court which reviews decisions taken in disciplinary proceedings against judges.”

It added: “This Disciplinary Chamber is composed solely of new judges selected by the National Council for the Judiciary whose judges-members are now appointed by the Polish parliament (Sejm)."

Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans was in early April quoted as saying at a news conference that disciplinary measures for judges that Poland’s ruling conservatives introduced in 2017 appeared “to systematically subject judges to the political control of the executive.”

Legal wrangle

The European Commission's October 10 decision to refer Poland to the EU's top court was the latest in a series of clashes between Brussels and Warsaw over sweeping changes to the country’s judicial system.

The European Court of Justice this month ruled that Poland broke European Union law with its 2017 judicial overhaul that lowered the retirement age for judges and introduced a different retirement age for men and women in the profession.

The Polish foreign ministry said in a statement that the ruling by the top EU court refers to a historical state of play and does not reflect the current regulations.

The European Commission in December 2017 took the unprecedented step of triggering Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Poland, stepping up pressure on Warsaw over judicial reforms.

The Polish government has since moved to modify the disputed legal changes.

Poland's governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came to power in late 2015, has argued that sweeping changes are needed to reform an inefficient and sometimes corrupt judicial system marred by communist holdovers.

Poland’s prime minister said in January that some of the legal changes made by his conservative government have met with criticism abroad because they are not understood in Western Europe.

(gs/pk)

Source: IAR, PAP TVP Info, curia.europa.eu