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High Court judge says changes in Poland have 'systematically damaged' the rule of law and breached democracy

The High Court referred an extradition case to the European Court of Justice.

Image: RollingNews.ie

A HIGH COURT judge has asked the European Courts for a ruling on the effect of recent legislative changes in Poland.

The judge said the changes are “so immense”, the High Court has been forced to conclude that “the common value of the rule of law” has been “systematically damaged” and “democracy in Poland” has been breached.

The referral was made in the extradition case of Artur Celmer, who is wanted to face trial in his native Poland on drug trafficking charges. He was arrested in Ireland on foot of a European Arrest Warrant last May.

In what Celmer’s lawyers have called the “lead test case” in Europe on extradition to Poland, they had opposed their client’s surrender in light of recent legislative changes concerning the Polish judiciary, courts and public prosecutor, among other issues.

Referring the case for a ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union today, Ms Justice Aileen Donnelly said a number of legislative changes in Poland in the last two years were “so immense” that the High Court was forced to conclude that the rule of law in Poland has been “systematically damaged”.

In light of the changes, Ms Justice Donnelly said the European Commission had made extensive efforts at constructive dialogue but there had been little engagement by the Polish authorities.

Last December, the European Commission issued a document referred to as the ‘Reasoned Proposal’ for Poland. It was the first time this had occurred in respect of any Member State.

Ms Justice Donnelly said the ‘Reasoned Proposal’ was “by any measure, a shocking indictment of the status of the rule of law in a European country in the second decade of the 21st Century”.

Dismantling 

It set out, in stark terms, she said “what appears to be the deliberate, calculated and provocative legislative dismantling by Poland of the independence of the judiciary, a key component of the rule of law”.

Citing the Reasoned Proposal, she said the “constitutionality of Polish laws can no longer be effectively guaranteed” because the independence of the judiciary and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal or constitutional court were “seriously undermined”.

Another European body, the Venice Commission, has stated that the merger of the office of the Minister for Justice with that of the Public Prosecutor General, the increased powers of both and the “weak position of checks to these powers result in the accumulation of too many powers for one person”.

If Celmer was surrendered to Poland, “he will be returning to face trial in a jurisdiction where the Minister for Justice is now the Public Prosecutor and is entitled to play an active role over the Presidents of Courts. This has the potential for a chilling effect on those Presidents” with subsequent consequences for the administration of justice, Ms Justice Donnelly said.

Counsel for Celmer, Seán Guerin SC, said the situation was “unprecedented” within the EU.

He said the legislative changes in Poland were a “systemic threat to the entire system of the rule of law and, in that sense, it was not possible or even necessary to isolate (Celmer’s) circumstances in order to establish a violation.”

“Landmark case”

Guerin submitted that the issues went to the heart of the European Arrest Warrant process and that assumptions of trust and confidence could no longer be relied upon.

Welcoming today’s judgment, Celmer’s solicitor, Ciarán Mulholland, from the firm Fahy Bambury Solicitors, said Ms Justice Donnelly’s decision epitomised “the importance of judicial independence”.

In a statement following the hearing, Mulholland said.

“This is an unprecedented European extradition case arising from the erosion of the Rule of Law in Poland.

“The recent legislative changes and further proposed changes in Poland are a real risk of flagrant denial of justice.

“These reforms fundamentally undermine the basis of mutual trust and recognition between Poland and the executing Judicial Authority.

The operation of the European Arrest Warrant system involving Poland is now seriously jeopardised.

Mulholland said it was a “landmark case”.

Concerns 

The concerns about Poland include the compulsory retirement of a significant number of judges (which allowed for a “far-reaching and immediate recomposition” of Poland’s Supreme Court), the recomposition of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal or constitutional court as well as its subsequent actions, “persisting with invalid appointments” to the Constitutional Tribunal and the prevention of lawfully nominated judges from taking up their functions.

Some concerns have been compounded by additional “sensitive new legislative acts” such as a new Civil Service Act, amending the law on the police, laws on the Public Prosecution Office, a law on the Ombudsman, a law on the National Council of the Media and an anti-terrorism law.

Ms Justice Donnelly said the legislative changes in Poland were “so immense” that “cherry-picking individual changes in the legislation is neither necessary nor helpful because it is the impact of the cumulative changes on the rule of law that is particularly concerning”.

Referring to a new regime which reduced the retirement age for female judges from 67 to 60 and for male judges from 67 to 65, Ms Justice Donnelly said that “by legislating for gender discrimination amongst the judiciary”, Poland had shown a significant disregard for what is recognised in the Treaty of the European Union.

The threats to constitutional concepts such as rule of law were not “theoretical but very real and quite systemic”.

“In my view, where fundamental values such as independence of the judiciary and respect for the Constitution are no longer respected, those systemic breaches of the rule of law are by their nature fundamental defects in the system of justice in Poland,” she said.

She said it was difficult to see how individual guarantees can be given by Poland “when it is the system of justice itself that is no longer operating under the rule of law”.

She said it was necessary for the High Court to request a ruling from the European Court of Justice before making a final determination. The precise wording of the referral to Europe will be argued before the court next week.

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Ruaidhrí Giblin

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