Disciplinary regime applicable to Polish judges: judgment of the CJEU in the case of Commission v. Poland

In the case of European Commission v. Poland (Régime disciplinaire des juges) (C-791/19, 15.7.2021), the CJEU decided on several complaints which had been raised by the European Commission, in the context of an action for failure to fulfill obligations (Art. 258 TFEU), and which concerned the new disciplinary regime applicable to Polish judges. In line with previous rulings (notably A.K. and Others, C-585/18, C-624/18, C-625/18; see below), the CJEU thereby expansively dealt with the requirements to be fulfilled under EU law for a domestic court to be independent and impartial. From a Convention perspective, the following aspects of the CJEU’s reasoning would appear to be noteworthy.

First, on the general relationship between EU law and the European Convention on Human Rights, the CJEU confirmed that pursuant to Article 52(3) of the EU-Charter, its interpretation of Articles 47(2) and 48 of the Charter must ensure a level of protection which does not disregard the one guaranteed by Article 6 ECHR, as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights (§ 165).

The approach adopted by the CJEU in this case would nonetheless appear to be somewhat different from the one usually adopted by the ECHR in similar cases. This could be explained by the fact that by their very nature, the complaints raised by the European Commission against the new disciplinary regime applicable to judges in Poland required the CJEU to look at the situation from an institutional perspective, covering simultaneously the independence and the impartiality of the judges concerned, considered in the abstract. Thus, the test and its application read as follows:

Taken together, the particular context and objective circumstances in which the Disciplinary Chamber was created, the characteristics of that chamber, and the way in which its members were appointed are such as to give rise to reasonable doubts in the minds of individuals as to the imperviousness of that body to external factors, in particular the direct or indirect influence of the Polish legislature and executive, and its neutrality with respect to the interests before it and, thus, are likely to lead to that body’s not being seen to be independent or impartial, which is likely to prejudice the trust which justice in a democratic society governed by the rule of law must inspire in those individuals. Such a development constitutes a reduction in the protection of the value of the rule of law for the purposes of the case-law of the Court referred to in paragraph 51 of the present judgment. (§ 112; see also §§ 59, 86, 98, 139).

By contrast, the ECHR primarily looks at the issues from the point of view of the individual applicant, thereby distinguishing between the independence of a judge and his/her impartiality and, as far as the latter is concerned, requiring any doubts of an applicant to be objectively justified (see, e. g., Morice v. France, 23.4.2015, 29369/10, § 76).

However, both Courts converge in emphasizing the importance of appearances in this field as an essential means of preserving the trust which justice in a democratic society governed by the rule of law must inspire in the citizens (see, e. g., Micallef v. Malta, 15.10.2009, 17056/06, § 98, recalling that “justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done“).

Finally, against this background, it comes as no surprise that on the issue of whether a court can be considered as “established by law”, the CJEU, in contrast with its approach on the other issues addressed, explicitly relied on Strasbourg case-law (§§ 168, 171). The reason would appear to be that under Article 6 of the Convention too, the answer to this issue can only be given from an institutional perspective, which is much closer to the perspective adopted by the CJEU in the present case. In this connection, see also the recent judgment in the case of Reczkowicz v. Poland (22.7.2021, 43447/19) in which, after abundantly referring to the case-law of the CJEU concerning the recent reform of the judiciary in Poland, the ECHR found that the Disciplinary Chamber of the Polish Supreme Court could not be considered a “tribunal established by law” (§ 277) (see also the post on this judgment, on this page).