Poland violated rights of judge removed as part of judicial overhaul, finds European court

Poland violated the rights of a judge when prematurely ending his mandate as part of its overhaul of the judiciary, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled today.

It is the latest in a series of judgements by the Strasbourg court that have found Poland’s judicial policies to have violated the right to a fair trial guaranteed under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In response, Poland’s constitutional court, a body widely seen as being under the influence of the ruling party, last week itself ruled that parts of that article are incompatible with the Polish constitution.

Today’s ruling came in response to a case brought by Jan Grzęda, a judge who sits on Poland’s Supreme Administrative Court. From 2016-18, he had also served as a member of the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the body responsible for nominating judges as well as for upholding their independence.

In that year, he was one of a number of judges removed from the KRS before their four-year terms had ended under a law that reconfigured the KRS – a body previously mostly made up of judges – to have a majority of its members appointed by parliament.

Grzęda argued that the fact there was no legal avenue for contesting the decision to prematurely remove him from the KRS had violated his right to a fair trial (under Article 6 of the ECHR) and right to an effective remedy (under Article 13).

Poland’s government, however, argued that this was unrelated to its reforms, pointing out that there had previously never been any possibility for a member of the KRS to challenge the termination of their term in office.

Today, the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR sided with Grzęda, finding that his right to a fair trial under Article 6 had been violated. As his complaint under Article 13 was “essentially the same”, the court found it unnecessary to examine it. It ordered Poland to pay the judge €30,000 compensation.

“The Court adjudged that a ‘right’ to serve a full term was indeed arguable under domestic law, referring to the [Polish] Constitution, the constitutional case-law and the relevant supporting legislation,” announced the ECtHR, which also found that this right was protected under Article 6 of the ECHR.

Noting the importance of the KRS for protecting judicial independence, the ECtHR deemed that “similar procedural safeguards to those that apply to the dismissal of judges should also be available in the removal of a member of the [KRS]”.

The European court also noted “the context of the case”, namely “the weakening of judicial independence and adherence to rule-of-law standards brought about by government reforms”. Grzęda’s “case was one example of this general trend”.

Poland’s body reviewing judicial nominations is illegal, rules European human rights court

In a similar ruling last year, the ECtHR found that judges’ right to a fair trial had been violated when they were dismissed without explanation by the justice minister. This year, it found that Polish authorities acted with “manifest disregard for the rule of law” in their judicial policies, meaning the way judges are appointed violates the right to a fair trial.

It also ruled that the KRS is no longer independent from political influence and that the government’s judicial policies have caused the constitutional court to longer be a “tribunal established by law”.

In October, Poland became the first country to ever be expelled from the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ). “The KRS does not anymore…safeguard the independence of the judiciary, it does not defend the judiciary or individual judges,” found the ENCJ.

Meanwhile, Poland’s constitutional court nas – at the request of the justice minister – twice ruled in recent months that parts of Article 6 of the ECHR are incompatible with the Polish constitution.

Part of European Human Rights Convention inconsistent with Polish constitution, rules top court

Main image credit: Jakub Orzechowski / Agencja Gazeta

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