The ICJ today denounced the renewed threat of criminal proceedings by prosecutorial authorities against Judge Igor Tuleya on charges arising from the judge’s independent exercise of his judicial functions, as his case is appealed before a panel of the Supreme Court Disciplinary Chamber.
Judge Tuleya faces prosecution for having allowed the presence of media in a sensitive case concerning the investigations on the 2017 budget vote in the Polish House of Representatives (Sejm) that took place without the presence of the opposition.
He has been charged with ‘failing to comply with his official duties and overstepping his powers’ for having allegedly disclosed a secret of the investigation to ‘unauthorized parties’.
The accusations stem from the initiative of the judge to allow media and the public in the courtroom while issuing his ruling. Usually rulings on investigations are issued behind closed doors in Poland, but the criminal procedure code allows judges to make the hearing public “in the interest of justice”.
“Judge Tuleya’s immunity should be maintained. Actually he should not face any criminal proceedings to begin with as its decisions were in accordance with the law and the principles of transparency and public trials,” said Massimo Frigo, Senior Legal Adviser for the ICJ Europe and Central Asia Programme.
“His case is a further demonstration of the relentless attacks against the independence of judges ongoing in Poland.”
The Disciplinary Chamber, in a single-judge formation, upheld Judge Tuleya’s immunity on 9 July but the prosecution appealed the ruling that will be now decided by the same Chamber before a three-judge panel, Tomasz Przelawski, Slawomis Niedzielak and Jaroslaw Sobutka.
These proceedings are the first case of implementation the draconian Act amending the Law on the Common Courts, the Law on the Supreme Court and Some Other Laws, signed into law on 4 February and widely known as the ‘Muzzle Act’, which has given competence to waive judicial immunity to the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court.
“Immunity claims against a judge should be decided only by an independent body,” Massimo Frigo added.
“As EU Court of Justice held, the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court is not independent and is open to undue influence or interference by political authorities. It should therefore not rule on this case.”
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.”
Based on this ruling, the Labour, Criminal and Civil Chambers of the Supreme Court declared that the Disciplinary and Extraordinary Chambers of the Supreme Court were not properly constituted and independent.
According to the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary, judges are entitled to a fair hearing in all disciplinary proceedings (principle 17). In order for such a hearing to be fair, the decision-maker must be independent and impartial.
International and European standards on the independence of the judiciary provide that judges should have immunity from criminal prosecution for decisions taken in connection with their judicial functions in the absence of proof of malice, and any procedure for removing immunity must itself be independent (see for instance, UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, paras 65-67 and 98; Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, para 68; Consultative Council of European Judges, para 20; ICJ Practitioners Guide no 13, pp. 27-30).
On 26 February 2020, the Polish Prosecutor’s Office requested a waiver of Judge Tuleya’s immunity in order to press criminal charges which might lead to imprisonment. The waiver was rejected on 9 June 2020 by the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court appointed by the government, in a single-judge formation. The Prosecutor’s Office appealed the ruling. The case will be now considered by the same Disciplinary Chamber in a three-judge formation. A first hearing was scheduled for 5 October 2020 but was postponed. It will take place on 18 November.
In an open letter of 5 February 2020, 44 ICJ Commissioners and Honorary Members denounced the recent legislative changes adopted by the Polish government threatening the role and the rights of judges and denouncing the risks faced by legal practitioners when fighting for the rule of law. Two weeks later, the risks highlighted by the letter have become reality for an increasing number of Polish judges, including Judge Tuleya.
Massimo Frigo, Senior Legal Adviser, Europe and Central Asia Programme, e: massimo.frigo(a)icj.org, t: +41 797499949