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Mutual Trust at Issue: New Law Limiting the Independence of the Judiciary in Poland

z25581399V,Protest-w-obronie-niezawislosci-sadow--Rynek-w-KraOn 14 of February 2020 a new law undermining the independence of judiciary in Poland (a so-called “muzzle law“) entered into force.

The Act of Law of 20 December 2019 bars judges from, among other things, contesting the status of other judges or the legality of their appointment (an English version of the draft Act, almost identical to the Act as adopted, is available here) .

The act is a reaction to (i) the CJEU judgment of 19 November 2019 in the AK case, by which the Court asked Polish judges to verify the conformity of the new Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court with EU law, and (ii) the subsequent judgment of another chamber of the Polish Supreme Court of 5 December 2019 finding that the Disciplinary Chamber does not comply with EU law (an English version can be found here).

According to the new Act, judgments corresponding with the one laid down by Supreme Court on 5 December 2019 would be prohibited. Defecting judges can be removed from the profession.

The law has provoked strong reactions from the European institutions already at the stage of the legislative process.

The Vice-President of the European Commission, Věra Jourová, wrote on 19 December 2019 a letter to the Polish President, the Prime Minister and the Presidents of both chambers of the Parliament. The letter states that the rules of the new legislation “touch upon matters such as judicial independence, further raising the Commission’s existing concerns in this area”.

In the letter, Ms Jourová also encouraged “the Polish authorities to consult the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission on this draft legislation”, and invited “all State organs not to take forward the proceedings on the new draft legislation before carrying out all the necessary consultations”.

On 11 January 2020 a “March of 1000 Gowns” demanding “the right to independence, the right to Europe” took place in Warsaw. Polish judges supported by 50 judges from other European countries, together with thousands of citizens, protested against the draft law.

The Venice Commission adopted on 16 of January 2020 an urgent joint opinion on the draft law. The remark is made in the opinion that, by virtue of some of the amendments to the law, “the judges’ freedom of speech and association is seriously curtailed”: Polish courts will be effectively prevented from examining whether other courts within the country are ‘independent and impartial’ under the European rules”.

On 28 January 2020, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) opened a monitoring procedure for Poland over the functioning of its democratic institutions and the rule of law. In its resolution 2316(2020) it declared that recent reforms in Poland “severely damage the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law”.

The law was adopted anyway. An open question is what impact it will  have on the mutual trust and the mutual recognition of judgments in the European Union. Polish ‘reforms’ resulted already in the rebuttal of the presumption of mutual trust in the context of recognition of judgments in criminal matters (judgment of 25 July 2018 in the LM case, analysed here). But the restriction of the independence of the judiciary has a potential impact on all acts providing for the mutual recognition of judgments, in both criminal and civil matters.

It can be particularly challenging for judges applying norms of EU Private International Law. 

Recognition of civil judgments given by a court or tribunal of a Member State should take into account that the CJEU treats a “court” as an autonomous concept of EU law.

The CJEU elaborated on this notion, among other rulings, in Ibrica Zulfikarpašić (§43) and Pula Parking (§53), where it stated that due to the principle of mutual trust, EU law requires “that judgments the enforcement of which is sought in another Member State have been delivered in court proceedings offering guarantees of independence and impartiality”.

The above-mentioned doubts expressed by the European Commission and PACE appear to challenge that requirement.

Photo: Courtesy of Jakub Włodek / Agencja Gazeta