Poland’s justice system descended into confusion on Friday as courts began postponing hearings amid a clash with the government that observers said risked creating parallel legal orders in the country.
The country’s ruling Law and Justice party has given politicians sweeping powers over the judiciary, sparking resistance from Poland’s supreme court and a backlash from EU institutions.
The supreme court said on Thursday that judges appointed since Law and Justice changed the rules to give politicians control were illegitimate, and that some of their rulings could be questioned.
Law and Justice politicians rejected the supreme court’s resolution, with the justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro branding it a “flagrant violation of the law”. Poland’s legislature, controlled by Law and Justice, simultaneously voted through a contentious new law that will make it possible to punish, and even sack, judges who question its reforms.
Amid the confusion, courts in cities including Warsaw, Katowice and Kalisz postponed hearings. Michal Laskowski, a judge at the supreme court, said three cases that had been due to be heard on Friday had been adjourned.
Analysts said there was now a risk of rival judicial systems: one composed of judges loyal to the supreme court, which has largely maintained its independence and is headed by Malgorzata Gersdorf; and a second following the constitutional tribunal, which was neutered by Law and Justice in 2016, and is now headed by Julia Przylebska. She is described by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Law and Justice, as a “friend”.
“Judges will face a choice: should we follow the supreme court or should we support the government and the . . . constitutional court. So a judge can move forward, but first a judge must make a very difficult decision, a decision that nobody should have to make in a state based on the rule of law,” said Marcin Matczak, a law professor at the University of Warsaw and an outspoken critic of the government’s reforms.
“Of course as a lawyer I hate a situation like that, because the law is all about stability and clarity, and this is chaos.”
Law and Justice argues its changes are necessary to overhaul a creaking system regarded by many Poles as inefficient. But critics at home and in Brussels regard them as an attempt to undermine democratic checks and balances.
The European Commission has repeatedly condemned Law and Justice’s changes, and in 2017 took the unprecedented step of launching a so-called Article 7 process against Poland, which could in theory result in the country’s EU voting rights being suspended.
While this process has been vetoed by Poland’s close ally Hungary, the commission has also launched a series of legal challenges against Law and Justice’s changes. On Friday the EU’s leading court confirmed that it had received a request from the commission to suspend Law and Justice’s latest legislation on disciplining judges.
Christian Wigand, a spokesman for the commission, reiterated the EU’s concerns and added that the commission “will not hesitate” to take steps to protect the rule of law. Vera Jourova, the commissioner responsible, will be in Poland next week.
Additional reporting by Agata Majos