April 15, 2019 Blog

Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) Justifies “Judicial Reform” with Problem of its Own Making

Anthony Ayres, Legal Fellow

On July 20, 2018, the ruling party in the Polish legislature, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), passed a judicial reform bill that makes it easier for the ruling party to appoint a new head to the Supreme Court. This bill was joined by another that required all Supreme Court Judges over the age of 65 to retire, thus creating the openings to utilize the new law. Despite the fact that this amendment has been rescinded, the PiS-affiliated president, Adrzej Duda, named 27 new judges to the Supreme Court in October 2018. President Duda has argued for these judicial reforms, at least in part, by claiming that they are necessary to improve the efficiency of the courts. However, the perceived inefficiency of Polish courts is the problem of the PiS’ own making.

In December 2016, the PiS adopted amendments to the Law on Public Assemblies and introduced a “category of ‘regular/cyclical assemblies’ devoted to patriotic, religious and historic events that take priority over other assemblies.” The PiS also authorized the prohibition of counter-demonstrations, making certain that only one assembly occurs at a time. In conjunction, these two laws allow local authorities near-autonomy in determining what protests and assemblies are and, more importantly, are not legal. Human Rights Watch has determined that these changes limit protests critical of the government. Further, the Polish Code of Minor Offences authorize the criminalization of misdemeanors such as disturbing the peace, disrupting lawful assembly, and unlawfully occupying a public place that another person or group has the right to occupy. Police are authorized to arrest and jail anybody alleged to have violated those laws, which violates international law and can deter further exercising of the right to freedom of assembly and expression. Organizations such as Amnesty International are concerned that the use of these criminal sanctions against protesters exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly is disproportionate and unnecessary under international human rights law.

The PiS-controlled prosecutor’s office has made short work of taking advantage of the situation created by these laws. In a study published by Free Citizens of the Republic of Poland (Wolni Obywatele RP) Foundation, 621 persons reported as having come into contact with law enforcement when taking part in a peaceful protest in a span on a year and a half. Of these 621 people, 617 suffered interrogations for violations of the Code of Minor Offences and 404 people had to fight through the courts to achieve a decision from the judiciary. The PiS-controlled prosecutor is targeting protestors and, as a result, is clogging up the judiciary system. Which is the precise problem President Duda is supposedly trying to solve with the subversion of the judiciary.

Criminalizing protests to discourage political opposition has a particular impact in Poland, where protests and assembly holds a uniquely powerful place in the hearts of Polish people. The Solidarity movement of the 1980s singled out Poland as the first Soviet-bloc country that had an independent labor union and a broad, non-violent, anti-communist social movement that claimed more than 9 million members. Today, the people in Poland seek to peacefully protest and protect their judiciary from political interference, and the PiS is using these protests to further clog the judiciary.