The ICJ called today on the Polish House of Representatives (Sejm) to drop a draft law that would put judges at risk of disciplinary action for their interpretation and application of the law, including EU and international law.
The draft law would also mean that judges would face disciplinary penalties for legitimate criticism of judicial reforms.
“The Polish Parliament should reject these proposals which would place intolerable constraints on judges in interpreting and applying the law and would undermine their freedom to speak out on vital issues of judicial independence,” said Róisín Pillay, Director of the ICJ Europe and Central Asia Programme.
“Elements of the proposals appear designed to prevent judges from fulfilling their obligation under the EU treaties to apply EU law, which is an attack on the independent exercise of their judicial function” she added.
Under the proposals, judges would face disciplinary action and possible dismissal for refusing to apply a legal provision, unless it had been deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Tribunal.
This proposal appears to be a direct reaction to a recent decision of the Labour Chamber of the Supreme Court which, applying a ruling of the Court of Justice of the EU, held that the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber was not an independent court. The Labour Chamber found that that the Disciplinary Chamber is not independent since its judges are appointed by the National Council of the Judiciary (NCJ). Following a recent constitutional reform, the NCJ is composed predominantly of members elected by Parliament and the executive, contrary to international standards on the independence of the judiciary.
New disciplinary offences for judges under the draft law would also include questioning the status of Polish judges, and “political engagement”. Judges would be prohibited from questioning the status of Polish courts or tribunals or constitutional organs. Futhermore, the draft law would prevent judges’ associations from adopting resolutions “expressing hostility towards other powers of the Republic of Poland and its constitutional organs”.
These provisions would hamper judges’ capacity to criticize reforms which have led to questionable judicial appointments by the NCJ and have seriously damaged the independence of the judiciary as a whole. International human rights law and international standards on the judiciary recognise that judges have a right to freedom of expression and that they have a particularly important role in contributing to discussions on issues of the functioning of the judicial system and the rule of law.
On 19 November, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) delivered a ruling in the case A.K. and others (C-585/18, C-624/18, C-625/18), on a preliminary question by the Supreme Court of Poland. The preliminary question asked whether the recently established Disciplinary and Extraordinary Chambers of the Supreme Court could be considered to be independent.
The CJEU ruled that a court cannot be considered independent “where the objective circumstances in which that court was formed, its characteristics and the means by which its members have been appointed are capable of giving rise to legitimate doubts, in the minds of subjects of the law, as to the imperviousness of that court to external factors, in particular, as to the direct or indirect influence of the legislature and the executive and its neutrality with respect to the interests before it and, thus, may lead to that court not being seen to be independent or impartial with the consequence of prejudicing the trust which justice in a democratic society must inspire in subjects of the law.”
The UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary clarify that all governmental and other institutions must respect and observe the independence of the judiciary (Principle 1), and that judges must decide all matters before them impartially, on the basis of facts and in accordance with the law, without any restrictions, improper influences, inducements, pressures, threats or interferences, direct or indirect (Principle 2). Judges can be subject to suspension or removal only following fair procedures (Principle 17) and only for reasons of incapacity or behaviour that renders them unfit to discharge their duties (Principle 18).
The UN Basic Principles, also affirm the freedom of expression and association of judges (Principle 8) in line with protections under international human rights law, and their right to form and join associations of judges to represent their interests (Principle 9).
In recent years, the Polish executive and legislative authorities have systematically undermined the independence of the judiciary in the country, including through laws that have sought to force the dismissal of judges by lowering the mandatory retirement age. In addition, they have brought the appointment of judges under political control by re-structuring the National Council of the Judiciary (NCJ), with a majority of its members selected by the Polish Parliament. (see ICJ statement)
This move has also politicized the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court, whose members are selected by the NCJ, and the disciplinary court of first instance. In October 2019, the European Commission referred Poland to the CJEU on the grounds that the new disciplinary regime for judges undermines their independence.
In June 2019, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) held that the Polish Law on the Supreme Court lowering the retirement age of judges of the Supreme Court and providing discretionary power to the President to allow a judge to remain in office following the mandatory retirement date was contrary to the principle of effective judicial protection and therefore in violation of EU law. In November 2019, the CJEU held that Poland violated the independence of the judiciary by lowering in 2017 the pension age of Polish judges and giving the power to maintain them in office to the Minister of Justice.
The ICJ has documented, and the UN Special Rapporteur on independence of judges and lawyers has affirmed, that the right of judges to freedom of expression is particularly protected when in situations where the rule of law or constitutional order is under threat, they speak out in defence of the independence of the judiciary.
Róisín Pillay, Director for Europe and Central Asia Proramme, t: +32 2 734 84 46; e: roisin.pillay(a)icj.org
Massimo Frigo, Senior Legal Adviser of the ICJ Europe and Central Asia Programme, t: +41 22 979 3805 ; e: massimo.frigo(a)icj.org