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EU opens infringement procedure against Poland over judicial independence

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EU opens infringement procedure against Poland over judicial independence

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(BRUSSELS) - The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Poland Wednesday, citing the aim of protecting Polish judges from political control. The Polish government has 2 months to reply.

Poland's new disciplinary regime undermines the judicial independence of Polish judges, says the EU executive, by not offering necessary guarantees to protect them from political control, as required by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Firstly, the Commission is of the opinion that Poland failed to fulfil its obligations under Article 19(1) of the Treaty on European Union read in connection with Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which enshrine a right to an effective remedy before an independent and impartial court.

Polish law allows to subject ordinary court judges to disciplinary investigations, procedures and ultimately sanctions, on account of the content of their judicial decisions. Also, the new 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. 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).

Furthermore, the new disciplinary regime does not ensure that a court "established by law" will decide in first instance on disciplinary proceedings against ordinary court judges, as it empowers the President of the Disciplinary Chamber to determine, on an ad-hoc basis and with an almost unfettered discretion, the disciplinary court of first instance to hear a given case. Moreover, the new disciplinary regime for judges restricts procedural rights of defendants in disciplinary proceedings. The new regime no longer guarantees that cases are dealt with within a reasonable time, allowing the Minister of Justice and the President of the Republic to keep charges permanently pending over judges through disciplinary officers appointed by them. Also, the new regime affects judges' right of the defence.

Finally, the Commission considers that Poland failed to fulfil its obligations under Article 267 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which enshrines the right of courts to request preliminary rulings from the European Court of Justice. As developments in Poland show, the new disciplinary regime allows for judges to be subject to disciplinary proceedings for the content of their judicial decisions. This includes decisions to refer questions to the Court of Justice. As judges are not shielded from being exposed to disciplinary sanctions for exercising this right enshrined in Article 267 TFEU, the new regime creates a chilling effect for making use of this mechanism. The functioning of the preliminary reference mechanism – which is the backbone of the Union's legal order – requires national courts to be free to refer to the European Court of Justice any question for a preliminary ruling that they consider necessary, at whatever stage of the proceedings.

Press release – Rule of Law: European Commission refers Poland to the European Court of Justice to protect the independence of the Polish Supreme Court (24 September 2018)

Press release – Rule of Law: European Commission acts to defend judicial independence in Poland (20 December 2017)


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