Polish Court Reforms: Judges Under Pressure From All Sides

Changes in the Polish justice system introduced over the last four years are being used to increase pressure on judges, according to the HFHR study “The Time of Trial. How do changes in justice system affect Polish judges?”

An HFHR study has identified five main types of pressure currently being exerted on judges in Poland; namely, attempts to influence the judicial decision making process, disciplinary proceedings, the impact of ongoing conflicts in the court, attacks by the media, and violations of judges’ right to privacy. From February to July 2019 HFHR lawyers interviewed 40 judges from 26 courts in 15 cities in Poland. The interviewees were mostly front-line judges from districts courts to appellate courts.

Judges fear being disciplined, which could affect the decisions they make

“We have identified five areas in which judges encounter various forms of pressure. Twenty four out of 40 respondents indicated that they had experienced at least one form of pressure. These experiences escalated with changes in the judiciary, introduced in last four years”, said Małgorzata Szuleka, a co-author of the report.

None of the respondents stated that anyone had ever attempted to force them to make a certain decision. This does not mean, however, that the judicial decision making process is free from any pressure. The judges that took the survey mentioned examples of court authorities and politicians acting in a way that amounted to interference in the justice system. The general aura around courts and judges and the constantly growing threat of disciplinary proceedings were, certainly, not without significance, too.

“I’ve heard my colleagues warning me: you shouldn’t do this, or you’ll be disciplined”, said one of the surveyed judges. According to 11 respondents, this might have an impact on the decisions judges make. Moreover, the interviewees pointed out that it also influences their public activities.

The respondents also mentioned attacks by public and right-wing media as one of the main sources of pressure. In this context, a certain anonymous Twitter account that mentions specific judges has played a vital role. The owners of this account seem to have access to classified materials from courts based on which suspicions have arisen concerning close cooperation with the Ministry of Justice.

Judges loath to turn to councils and tribunals for help

The judges that were surveyed are also very critical of changes being made to the justice system. And they showed an especially negative attitude towards the new National Council of the Judiciary .

“None of our respondents took into consideration the possibility of turning to the new National Council of the Judiciary for help in case they are attacked or applying for a promotion in procedure governed by the Council”, said Marcin Wolny, another of the report’s co-authors. The negative assessment of the NCJ was mainly influenced by how new judge-members of the Council are selected, its composition and how it functions.

Some of the respondents were also critical of how the Constitutional Tribunal has been functioning since 2016. None of the surveyed judges would refer a question of law to the Tribunal. This is primarily because of the lack of certainty regarding the validity of judgements delivered by inappropriate panels on the Tribunal.

Reforms have nothing to do with improving efficiency

“None of the changes introduced in justice system in recent years have led to expediting the functioning of courts”, said Maciej Kalisz, a co-author of the report. To make matters worse, in many courts, changes of presidents have contributed to internal conflicts and antagonising judges.

The respondents criticised the way the system randomly allocates cases. Although the majority of surveyed judges praised the founding principles of the system, they think the way it is put into practice hampers their judicial work. Serious doubts were also raised regarding the transparency of the system; in one of the courts the HFHR’s researcher was given a copy of the president’s note requesting that a certain case be assigned to a particular judge.

The issue of court clerks is also raised in the report. The surveyed judges indicated that, in particular, their workload combined with low salaries have a negative influence on the effectiveness of their work.

“Any lucidly-thinking judge who has the faintest clue about this job will say the same thing I’ve been saying: the current reforms have nothing to do with improving the work of the judiciary. Nothing at all. I’m talking about the quality of working environment and the social perception of our work”, said one of judges who was interviewed.

The report is available here.