The controversial reform has caused an intense and protracted dispute between the Polish government and the European Commission.
Poland’s judicial reform infringes upon European law because it undermines the right to have access to an independent and impartial judiciary, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has said in a highly-anticipated ruling.
“The value of the rule of law is an integral part of the very identity of the European Union as a common legal order and is given concrete expression in principles containing legally binding obligations for the member states,” the judges said on Monday afternoon.
“The measures thus adopted by the Polish legislature are incompatible with the guarantees of access to an independent and impartial tribunal. previously established by law.”
The ruling is an unambiguous rejection of the reform introduced in 2019 by the hard-right government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which sparked an intense dispute between Warsaw and Brussels.
The contentious reform changed the rules that govern the relations between courts, preventing judges from questioning each other’s impartiality and reviewing the legality of their appointments.
It also empowered the disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court to punish magistrates according to the content of their verdicts. Possible penalties included a reduction of salary, the temporary suspension of duties and the waiver of immunity to allow the initiation of criminal proceedings.
The chamber has been repeatedly criticised by the European Commission, the United Nations and civil society organisations as a political tool to exert control over the judiciary and weaken the separation of powers.
Warsaw defended the body as a necessary instrument to purge influence from the communist era and crack down on corruption.
The European Court of Justice had previously ruled the chamber was incompatible with EU law and imposed a series of interim measures and ordered its dismantlement.
Poland’s continued refusal to comply with the interim measures led the ECJ to slap a record-breaking EUR1 million fine per day on the country, which was reduced to EUR500,000 earlier this year after the disciplinary body was replaced with a “chamber of professional responsibility.”
The fine is being deducted from Poland’s allocation of the EU budget and is supposed to stay in place until the issuance of Monday’s verdict.
In its new ruling, the ECJ reaffirmed its position on the chamber’s punitive powers and directly challenged the obligation to provide personal data, such as political party membership and NGO affiliation, that Polish judges were compelled to follow.
“The placing online of information relating to past membership of a political party is not, in the present case, appropriate for attaining the alleged objective of strengthening the impartiality of judges,” the judges said on Monday.
The disclosure is “liable to expose judges to risks of undue stigmatisation, by unjustifiably affecting the perception of those judges by individuals and the public in general.”
The Polish government has already tabled legislation to address the most controversial aspects of the reform and secure the release of its EUR35-billion share of the EU’s COVID-19 recovery fund, which Brussels is currently withholding.
But in a surprising move, President Andrzej Duda chose to send the proposed law to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, further delaying its implementation.