Polish constitutional tribunal illegal, says European rights court

Rule-of-law tussle between Europe and the Warsaw government intensifies

The battle over the rule of law in Poland entered a new round on Friday when the European Court of Human Rights described the country’s constitutional court as “not a tribunal established by law”.

The European court found that a Polish applicant was deprived of the right to a fair trial because a judge on the constitutional court review panel had been appointed using irregular procedures.

Friday’s ruling is the hardest-hitting blow to date against the controversial judicial reforms of the ruling national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) since it took office in 2015.

PiS says its reforms have streamlined Polish courts and tackled post-communist cronyism in the judiciary; critics at home and across Europe see judicial independence undermined with a new cast of political appointees.

Friday’s ruling saw the human rights court side with the critics, setting the stage for another looming ruling on Polish judiciary by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Poland’s constitutional tribunal president, Julia Przylebska, a government loyalist, attacked the human rights court on Friday for what she called its “lawless intervention” into Polish judicial competence.

The case involved a company that produces football pitch turf. It sued the state for damage to its products by wild boar in late 2010 and early 2011. A dispute over compensation ended in the constitutional court, where the company questioned the legality of five members of the bench, including one involved in hearing its case.

The company filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights and, in its ruling, the Strasbourg court detailed how in 2015 PiS and its allied president, Andrzej Duda, appointed five new judges to the tribunal although three vacant places had been filled legally by the previous administration.

Critics of the appointments say any rulings by these PiS-appointed judges are void.

The European court ordered Poland to pay the company damages worth about €3,400.