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Irish judges take lead in protesting ‘unrelenting threats’ to Polish judiciary
Chief Justice Frank Clarke Pic: Cian Redmond

11 Jan 2020 / justice Print

Judges' unprecedented act of solidarity with a Polish judiciary 'under threat'

Irish judges are taking the lead in mounting a staunch defence of the independence of the judiciary in Poland.

Alerted by various associations of Polish judges, the Irish judiciary has come out strongly against political interference with judges in the EU country.

Measures

The move follows what is described by Chief Justice Frank Clarke as “certain measures of recent Polish legislation” that fail to fulfil the “fundamental obligation to respect the independence of the judiciary”.

The chief justice has written a strongly-worded letter in support of judicial colleagues in Poland, which will be carried by Supreme Court Justice John MacMenamin at a silent protest by judges in Poland’s capital Warsaw, today (Saturday).

This is the first time that the Association of Judges in Ireland (AJI) has participated in a protest, at home or abroad. The letter will be handed to the Polish judges’ association Iustitia today.

Full robes

Justice MacMenamin will march in full robes in solidarity with Polish judicial colleagues today.

Chief Justice Clarke was unable to attend the protest march in person due to a prior commitment to attend the opening of the French legal year in Paris. He asked Justice MacMenamin to represent him at today’s protest.

And the Network of the Presidents of the Supreme Judicial Courts of the EU has now rowed in behind the Irish Chief Justice and the judiciary.

Various judges’ associations, courts and presidents’ associations have joined the campaign to protect the freedom of the Polish judiciary, with universal support from members of the EU judiciary.

Concerned

Alerted by various Polish associations, members of the judiciary across Europe say they are concerned about the recent amendments to laws that impact on the judiciary, which were adopted by the Polish parliament on 20 December last.

“The proposed legislative changes provide for a set of restrictions on the legal status of judges that would affect their independence and would allow the dismissal of judges who question judicial reforms,” says the judges’ network, in a statement.

“Co-operation in the field of justice is largely based on mutual trust in the administration of justice within the European Union,” the body says.

“The Network of Presidents, therefore, expresses its concern that the interferences by the Polish authorities will not only have the effect of undermining the rule of law, but also mutual trust in the administration of justice,” it continued.

The Network of Presidents comprises the presidents of the supreme judicial courts of the EU. Its members meet to discuss matters of common interest and concern, and to exchange ideas and information.

Forum

It also provides a forum through which European institutions may request the opinion of the supreme judicial courts of the EU.

Chief Justice Frank Clarke’s letter (see inset) reads:

Letter of support from Chief Justice

“As judges, we all know that we must refrain from engaging in activity which crosses the boundary into the area of politics. We must be careful ourselves to respect the separation of powers.

Brave

“But we must also be brave to protect the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary which supports it.”

The letter says that judges from all states have a legitimate concern about maintaining the independence of their colleagues throughout the world.

This is particularly so within the EU, because established treaties require respect and enforcement of the judgments of colleagues in other member states, the chief justice says.

He goes on to say that the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has emphasised, as a matter of European law, the fundamental importance of the independence of all judges who may be called on to rule on issues of EU law.

'Fundamental obligation'

Chief Justice Clarke points out that the CJEU has already decided that recent legislative events in Poland fail in this fundamental obligation.

The Polish Government has tightened control of judicial appointments, and has been accused of bringing spurious disciplinary action against certain judges who have criticised reforms.

It has also been accused of removing critical judges from the bench by lowering the retirement age.

'Sincere co-operation'

Events in Poland are of equal importance to the judiciary in each member state because of the duty of “sincere co-operation”, the Irish Chief Justice says.

“Where a member-state court has doubts about the independence of a relevant court in another member state, an objective individual assessment ... is required.”

The letter concludes that member-states’ judicial independence is a matter of legitimate interest and concern, and that Irish judges will continue to stand in solidarity with their colleagues in the Polish judiciary.

AJI objectives

AJI president Mr Justice David Barniville said during the week: “Among the aims and objectives of the AJI, which are set out in its constitution, are to promote the independence of the judiciary, and to promote and maintain contacts with judges and magistrates abroad, and with national and international associations of judges.”

Unequivocal support

The AJI said it was pleased to accept the invitation to join the silent march. Its letter, to be handed to the Polish marchers today, says that the AJI offers its “full and unequivocal support” and solidarity in the face of “ongoing and unrelenting threats”. 

March co-organiser Monika Frackowiak welcomed Irish participation, saying: “It’s very supportive for us. We really appreciate this.”

Iustitia said in a statement that it wants to “strongly emphasise that the march is apolitical”.

“It is not an affirmation of any political force in the country, nor is it intended to criticise the actions of any particular political party.

Dramatic consequences

“Its sole purpose is to make the legislative authority aware of the dramatic consequences of the entry into force of laws passed in parliament, and of repressive measures taken against representatives of the judiciary in Poland.”

The UK judges’ association will not take part in today’s march, but has offered its support.

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