The Polish Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr Adam Bodnar, has thanked the Irish judiciary for sending a representative to the "march of 1,000 gowns" in Warsaw, where judges from across Europe expressed solidarity with their Polish colleagues.
He told an audience in Dublin that the Polish judiciary "is the last guardian defending rights and freedoms in Poland" and that what was happening in Poland was important for the future of democracy throughout the European Union.
Mr Justice John MacMenamin of the Supreme Court, who attended the January protest in Warsaw, was at the Institute for International and European Affairs on Monday for Dr Bodnar’s address.
Also present were the Chief Justice, Frank Clarke, and the Attorney General, Séamus Woulfe SC.
“As I understand it, you were representing the whole judiciary of Ireland in supporting our cause,” Dr Bodnar said of Mr Justice MacMenamin’s attendance in Warsaw.
“It was really important, because I think it is one of those moments when you have a feeling that it is not only our cause, but the cause of the whole of Europe, the whole of the European Union.”
Dr Bodnar, who was appointed prior to the current Polish government coming into power, and whose term of office ends shortly, said changes introduced by the regime have affected not just the Polish constitutional court, but also the prosecutor’s office, the public media, the civil service, and the secret service.
The Polish parliament had responded to a ruling on November 19th last by the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union not by implementing the finding, but by introducing a “muzzle law” that punishes judges who resist the Polish government’s reforms, or who comply with rulings of the Luxembourg court.
The Court of Justice of the European Union is the supreme court of the EU in matters of union law and ensures it is applied equally across member states.
Some judges are being disciplined because of public statements they have made, while others are being disciplined for decisions they have made as judges, Dr Bodnar said.
One brave judge, he said, had decided to implement the November 19th ruling of the Court of Justice, and has been suspended as a result.
“It is, I think, the first case in the recent history of the European Union where a judge has been suspended for the application of EU law.”
Polish judges were risking a lot by resisting what is happening, Dr Bodnar said, and deserved people’s continued support.
“They are risking expulsion from their profession. They are risking criminal charges, and it seems to me that they are really trying as hard as they can to resist, because they know it is not just about them, it is about the future of Polish democracy.”
Dr Bodnar said there is a growing “schism” in the legal system in Poland, between those who are behaving in accordance with the constitution, and those who are acting in accordance with the new changes.
The “rule of law issue” in Poland is not just a Polish problem, he said,The topic should be central to European Union discourse.
“It is not a case that it is in Poland, it is in Hungary, it is far away. The problem will lead to the destruction of the EU system”, because mutual recognition and trust between judicial systems will no longer function, he said.
At the same meeting, Richard Barret, an Irish barrister and Ireland's representative to the Venice Commission, a body associated with the European Council and which considers matters of constitutional law, said that while there are laws and customs in relation to restrictions on the freedom of expression of judges, it was generally recognised that they were entitled to speak out in relation to matters of judicial reform.