Polish judicial reforms violated Lech Wałęsa’s human rights, rules European court

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that the rights of Lech Wałęsa, Poland’s former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, were violated as a result of the Polish government’s overhaul of the judiciary.

In their unanimous decision, the court’s judges also called on Poland to implement measures to address “systematic violations” caused by the those judicial reforms.

The case – titled Wałęsa v. Poland – dates back to a civil suit Wałęsa filed in his homeland over a decade ago against a former associate, Krzysztof Wyszkowski, who had publicly accused him of collaborating with the communist security services.

Judgment Walesa v. Poland – Poland must take appropriate measures to restore compliance with the European Conventionhttps://t.co/ePhT7a3bXY#ECHR #CEDH #ECHRpress pic.twitter.com/4r3tWNSOz1

— ECHR CEDH (@ECHR_CEDH) November 23, 2023

Wałęsa partially won that case in 2011, but the decision was overturned nine years later thanks to a new process, known as extraordinary appeal, created by the Law and Justice (PiS) government in 2017.

That procedure allows the prosecutor general, Zbigniew Ziobro, who is also justice minister, to challenge final court rulings. Such appeals are heard by the Supreme Court’s chamber of extraordinary review and public affairs, which was itself also created as part of the PiS government’s judicial overhaul.

In a ruling issued today, the ECHR found, as it has in the past, that this chamber is “not an independent and impartial tribunal established by law” because its judges were appointed by the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS) after it had also been overhauled by PiS in a manner that resulted in it being under political influence.

The @ECHR_CEDH has ruled that two Polish judges had their right to a fair hearing breached by a review body created during Poland’s overhaul of the judiciary.

The justice minister called the verdict part of a „broader political action” against the countryhttps://t.co/4E4e3CVs5u

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 8, 2021

That meant that Wałęsa’s right to a fair hearing under article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated, found the ECHR’s judges.

They also found that the extraordinary review process itself violates the principle of legal certainty guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights, noting that:

“Entrusting the prosecutor general – a member of the executive who wielded considerable authority over the courts and exerted a strong influence on the National Council of the Judiciary – with the unlimited power to contest virtually any final judicial decision ran counter to the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers, with a risk that extraordinary appeals could turn into a political tool used by the executive.”

The European judges added that “the state authority had abused the extraordinary appeal procedure to further its own political opinions and motives”, noting that “Wałęsa’s case could not be separated from the political context” of him being a prominent critic of the PiS government.

Finally, the ECHR found that Wałęsa’s right to respect for his private life had been violated. The European court ordered the Polish state to pay him €30,000 in damages.

Polish judicial reforms that introduced a tough new disciplinary system for judges violated European law, the EU Court of Justice has found.

The ruling ends a long-running case that has seen Poland fined over half a billion euros https://t.co/Sl9hZGwbAh

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 5, 2023

The ruling, however, also goes even further than this. Under what is known as a “pilot-judgement procedure” – which the ECHR uses when it deals with many cases deriving from the same underlying problem – it ordered Poland to take measures to address the issue.

“In order to put an end to the systemic violations…identified in this and previous cases, Poland must take appropriate legislative and other measures to comply with the requirements of an ‘independent and impartial tribunal established by law’ and with the principle of legal certainty,” wrote the court.

That aspect of the ruling has been hailed as groundbreaking by legal experts, including Marcin Szwed of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

🔴Lech Wałęsa wygrywa w Europejskim Trybunale Praw Człowieka w Strasburgu.
🔴Ale co w tej sprawie najbardziej istotne – ETPCz uznał, że system sądownictwa w Polsce jest wadliwy, podstawowym problemem jest KRS, z której wywodzą się kolejne błędy i nakazał Polsce zmianę systemu.

— Maciej Sokołowski (@sokoIowski) November 23, 2023

The ruling is the latest of many by the ECHR that have found various aspects of the PiS government’s judicial reforms to have violated human rights and the rule of law.

However, as in previous cases, its verdict was immediately rejected and condemned by Polish government figures, who argue that European institutions show double standards due to bias against eastern member states and political opposition to Poland’s conservative government.

“The court in Strasbourg has demonstrated legal racism,” tweeted deputy justice minister Sebastian Kaleta, who argued that Poland’s KRS operates in a similar manner to the equivalent in Spain.

He also claimed that the ECHR had issued its ruling “outside the scope of its competences, so the judgement is only an expression of a discriminatory vision that is a non-binding opinion”.

Trybunał w Strasburgu wykazał się rasizmem prawniczym. KRS ukształtowany w Polsce jest podobnie jak w Hiszpanii, a upolitycznienie procesu nominacyjnego jest o wiele niższe niż w wielu krajach europejskich.

Jeśli wobec Polski stanowi to zarzut, to jak ocenić kraje takie jak… https://t.co/i71O2gFpmF

— Sebastian Kaleta (@sjkaleta) November 23, 2023

However, PiS lost its parliamentary majority at last month’s elections and is now set to be replaced by a new governing coalition of three opposition groups that have pledged to restore the rule of law, including re-establishing the independence of the KRS.

Ahead of today’s ECHR ruling, opposition senator Adam Bodnar – who has been tipped as a likely candidate to become the new justice minister – said that it “may be of fundamental importance and lead to systemic changes aimed at eliminating problems with the functioning of the institution of extraordinary complaint”.

“I believe that [the ruling] will provide another legal weapon to restore the rule of law in Poland,” added Bodnar.

The opposition groups likely to form the next government have signed a coalition agreement

They pledged to:
– restore rule of law
– annul the near-total abortion ban
– depoliticise public media
– prosecute anti-LGBT hate speech
– separate church and state https://t.co/lwQvGGok8s

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 10, 2023

Notes from Poland is run by a small editorial team and published by an independent, non-profit foundation that is funded through donations from our readers. We cannot do what we do without your support.

Main image credit: Bartosz Banka / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign PolicyPOLITICO EuropeEUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

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