Helsinki Foundation releases report detailing how Polish judges are impacted by judicial system changes

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The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has released its report titled "The Time of Trial", based on interviews with judges in Poland who explain how changes by the Law and Justice-led government have impacted them in their work.



A link to the HFHR report “The Time of Trial” can be found here.

 

Below we reproduce the statement by HFHR accompanying the report’s release:

 

HFHR report: The Time of Trial. How are changes in the justice system affecting Polish judges?

 

Changes in the justice system introduced over the last four years are used, to a large extent, to increase pressure on judges, as shown by the HFHR study “The Time of Trial. How are changes in the justice system affecting Polish judges?” The study identified five main forms of pressure currently being exerted on judges: 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.

 

The study by HFHR

 

From February to July 2019, lawyers from HFHR interviewed 40 judges from 26 courts in 15 cities around Poland. The interviewees were primarily front-line judges from courts of all instances (from district to appellate level). The conducted surveys mainly addressed the pressure experienced by judges, the current situation of the judiciary and the respondents’ assessment of changes implemented in the judicial system.

 

Five areas of pressure

 

“The study has allowed us to identify five areas in which judges encounter various forms of pressure. Twenty-four out of forty respondents indicated that they had experienced at least one form of pressure. These experiences escalated with the changes in the judiciary introduced over the last four years,” says Małgorzata Szuleka, a co-author of the report.

 

None of our respondents stated that anyone had ever attempted to force them to make a certain decision. That does not mean, however, that the judicial decision-making process is free from any pressure. Judges indicated, for instance, examples of conduct by a court’s authorities or politicians amounting to interference with this process. The general aura around courts and judges and the constantly growing threat of disciplinary proceedings (both factors enhancing the chilling effect among judges) were certainly not without significance as well.

 

“I’ve heard colleagues warning me: you shouldn’t do this, or you’ll be disciplined,” said one of the interviewed judges. According to eleven respondents, the chilling effect can have an impact on how cases are adjudicated. Moreover, the interviewees pointed out that it also influences their public activities.

 

The respondents also referred to numerous attacks by public and right-wing media as one of the main sources of pressure. In this context, a certain anonymous Twitter account addressing particular judges plays a vital role. Based on the access of this account’s authors to classified materials from courts and other public institutions, suspicions have arisen that the person or people behind the account may be cooperating closely with the Ministry of Justice.

 

Assessment of changes in justice system

 

The report also indicates that the interviewed judges are very critical of the changes implemented in the justice system.

 

In particular, the negative attitude of judges towards the new National Council of the Judiciary was evident. “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 a procedure governed by the Council,” says Marcin Wolny, a co-author of the report. The negative assessment of the NCJ was mainly influenced by the mode of selection of new judge-members of the Council, its composition and the standards of its functioning.

 

The respondents were also unequivocally critical of the functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal after 2016. None of the surveyed judges would refer a question of law to the Tribunal. This is primarily due to the lack of certainty regarding the validity of judgements delivered by panels of the Tribunal the standing of whose members is called into question.

 

Current situation in courts

 

The report also refers to the current situation in courts. “None of the changes introduced in the justice system in recent years has led to expediting the functioning of courts,” says Maciej Kalisz, a co-author of the report. To make matters worse, changes of presidents in many courts have contributed to internal conflicts and antagonized judges.

 

Moreover, the respondents criticised the functioning of the system of random allocation of cases. Although the majority of surveyed judges praised the idea of the system, they found its implementation a hinderance to judicial work. Serious doubts were also raised regarding the transparency of the system – in one of the courts, an HFHR researcher was given a copy of a note by the president of the court requesting that a certain case be assigned to a particular judge.

 

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

 

“Any clear-thinking judge who has even the tiniest 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 the working environment and society’s perception of our work,” says one of the interviewed judges.