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What you need to know about the Polish court reforms

Alistair Walsh with AP, AFP and Reuters)
July 19, 2017

A proposed reform of Poland's supreme court has been described as the latest step in a string of assaults on the independence of the judiciary by Poland's ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party.

Polens Oberstes Gerichtshof
Image: Picture alliance/PAP/B. Zborowski

According to the EU-Commission and the Polish opposition, a proposed reform of Poland's supreme court is the latest step in a perceived string of assaults on the independence of the judiciary by Poland's ruling right wing Law and Justice Party.

If the latest reforms are passed, Poland's ruling right wing Law and Justice party (PiS) will wield considerable influence over the court systems, and be able to sideline any troublesome judges.

Under the proposed reforms:

·    All 83 Supreme Court judges would be immediately dismissed except those chosen by Poland's controversial Justice Minister Ziobro.

·    If the chief justice of the Supreme Court retires, "his duties and powers will be passed on to the court justice designated by the justice minister."

·    Supreme court judges would also be obligated to consider "Christian values" in rulings.

·    Future appointees would still be decided by the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), but in reforms passed last week but not yet signed by the President, parliament would effectively assume control of that board. Half of the KRS' membership would be made up of members of the lower house of parliament (Sejm), and the other half approved by Sejm-selected judges.

·    Polish President Andrzej Duda, normally closely aligned with the party, made a surprise announcement though, proposing that parliament would need more than a simple majority to propose nominations to the body, meaning they could need the support of other parties.

·    In a law also passed last week, but not yet signed, current presiding judges in the common courts would immediately lose their posts. At that point, the justice minister would have the power to replace thousands of presiding judges with his own acolytes. The justice minister would also have the power to dismiss and appoint court presidents, who decide which judges sit on which cases.

Polen Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the PiS (Law and Justice) party Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski

The ruling party has already been condemned by the European Union for stacking loyalists onto the Constitutional Tribunal, which screens legislation for accordance with the national constitution. After winning the 2015 election, the PiS changed the way the court operates - including the order in which cases are heard and how the chief justice is chosen - and has put forward its own judges instead of those approved by the previous parliament.

The party argues that the changes are necessary to destroy the vestiges of communist power inherent in the justice system. Authoritarian PiS party founder Jaroslaw Kaczynski - himself a trained lawyer - believes that Poland's court system is still a "stronghold of post-communists."

It is indeed true that judges were one of the few occupational groups responsible for maintaining the communist state whose backgrounds were not closely examined after 1989 but many fear the reforms would strip the whole justice system of its independence.