If signed into effect, the two laws will reshape the country’s Supreme Court and reorganise the influential National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), a body that nominates new judges and is tasked with safeguarding the independence of courts.
The country’s ruling majority has hailed the new regulations as a vital reform of Poland’s inefficient and sometimes corrupt justice system, but the opposition has castigated the changes as unconstitutional and claimed the governing conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party is seeking to pack the Supreme Court and the KRS judicial panel with loyalists.
President Andrzej Duda’s nod to both laws is widely seen as a foregone conclusion, especially as the Polish head of state had submitted the two proposals to parliament himself before lawmakers made a slew of amendments to them.
The president’s spokesman Krzysztof Łapiński said on Polish Radio 3 on Saturday that after leaving parliament both laws retained all those provisions that Duda was particularly concerned about.
Earlier, senior presidential aide Paweł Mucha welcomed the passage of the laws by the Senate with no further amendments. After the senators’ votes, he said he hoped the changes to the judiciary would “serve the Polish people.”
Flak from Brussels
Meanwhile, the European Commission is on Wednesday due to assess sweeping changes to Poland’s Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary amid concerns over the rule of law in the country.
The leaders of France and Germany said on Friday they would support the European Commission if it takes the unprecedented step of triggering Article 7.1 against Poland and sends a warning to Warsaw.
‘Extraordinary review’, disciplinary chamber
If President Duda, an ally of the country’s ruling conservatives, signs the new regulations into law, the Supreme Court will be able to conduct “extraordinary reviews” of final judgments by lower courts, including those issued over the last 20 years.
In another key change to existing rules, an autonomous disciplinary chamber will be created within the Supreme Court that will in part be staffed by lay members elected by the upper house of parliament.
The law will also see Supreme Court judges retire after reaching the age of 65, but the president will be able to extend the retirement age in each individual case. Until now Supreme Court judges retired at 70 in Poland.
The European Commission said in July that it was ready to trigger a formal warning by the EU if Poland dismisses or forces the retirement of Supreme Court judges.
MPs to elect members of judicial panel
Under the new rules for the judiciary council, the lower house of parliament would elect the bulk of the panel's 25 members. Until now this right was chiefly enjoyed by the judges themselves.
Each parliamentary caucus would be able to name no more than nine candidates for members of the KRS, which is a panel that reviews and assesses candidates for judges.
Meanwhile, the Venice Commission international watchdog said last Friday that sweeping changes planned to Poland’s courts put the independence of “all parts” of the Polish judiciary “at serious risk.”
In late October, Poland's Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said that Poland “will not accept external intervention” in moves to overhaul the legal system backed by the country's ruling conservatives.
He was commenting on a planned fact-finding visit to Warsaw by the Venice Commission, which is an advisory group to human rights body the Council of Europe.
Easy passage through Senate
The law designed to reorganise the work of the Supreme Court passed in a 58-26 vote with three abstentions in the PiS-dominated upper house of parliament on Friday, while the changes to the National Council of the Judiciary were approved by 60 senators and opposed by 26, with one abstention.
A crowd of protesters opposing the judicial reforms gathered outside parliament and chanted "Shame" as the senators voted through the new regulations, according to Poland's state PAP news agency.
Last Friday, the lower house of Poland’s parliament approved the two laws after a stormy debate with bitter verbal exchanges between the opposition and the ruling majority.
Source: IAP, PAP