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Meeting with UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers

Representatives of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights have met Diego Garcia-Sayan, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. The conversation was devoted to, among other things, the ongoing constitutional crisis and the independence of courts and judges in the light of proposed reforms of the justice system.

Constitutional crisis

The Helsinki Foundation has been monitoring the constitutional crisis from its beginning in 2015. The HFHR has many times emphasised that the fact that the persons elected for judicial posts at the Constitutional Tribunal without a valid legal basis have been allowed to hear cases weakens the Tribunal’s position and gives rise to serious concerns over the legality of its rulings.

The HFHR also notes the slower pace of the Tribunal’s work. Since the changes to the leadership of the Constitutional Tribunal were introduced at the end of 2016 and in early months of 2017, there has been a significant drop in the number of cases submitted to Poland’s constitutional court: in the period from 1 January to 30 June 2017, 47 cases were presented for the Tribunal’s consideration, as compared to 60 in the relevant period of 2016, and 153 and 66 in 2015 and 2014, respectively.

“Following the adoption of six different laws on the operation of the Constitutional Tribunal within a single year, the Tribunal’s position has been weakened significantly. It ceased to be an independent institution and the key element of the entire system of human rights protection”, says Maciej Nowicki, Deputy President of the Foundation’s Board.

Reform of courts

Furthermore, the HFHR points to unfinished works on the reform of the justice system. In August 2017, the HFHR presented a report, entitled What reform of courts do we need?, for the President’s consideration. The document described the key problems related to the functioning of the justice system, such as insufficient access to defence lawyers, the excessive length of the proceedings, the absence of a regulation of court-appointed experts, problems with accessing courts faced by persons with disabilities. However, none of the recent legislative proposals concerning the National Council of the Judiciary or the Supreme Court addresses specifically any of these issues.

“What the ruling majority tries to present as a reform of the justice system is really a struggle waged in order to expand political control over independent courts”, says Dr Barbara Grabowska-Moroz, HFHR’s legal expert.

Independence of courts undermined

The HFHR has also noted other cases and actions resulting in restrictions being placed on the independence of the justice system, such as the presidential pardon of a person not yet convicted by a final judgment, the failure to appoint judge candidates referred by the National Council of the Judiciary for judicial posts as well as the increasingly heated public debate on the overall performance of the justice system.

“The constitutional crisis that has been ongoing in Poland since 2015 added momentum to the public debate on the necessity for a reform of the justice system. However, instead focusing on key aspects of the problem, the discussion increasingly often turns into the ruling majority’s assault on judges and courts”, says Małgorzata Szuleka, a lawyer of the Helsinki Foundation.

HFHR’s report on the constitutional crisis and independence of courts can be read here.

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