European arrest warrant – independence of the judiciary: judgment of the CJEU in the case of Openbaar Ministerie

In the case of Openbaar Ministerie (joined cases C-354/20 PPU and C-412/20 PPU, 17.12.2020) the Amsterdam District Court was called upon to decide upon the surrender of a person to the Polish authorities on the basis of a European arrest warrant (EAW) issued for the purpose of conducting a criminal investigation. It referred the case to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling on whether, in view of existing evidence of systemic or generalised deficiencies concerning the independence of the judiciary in Poland, the EAW was nonetheless to be executed.

In response, the CJEU confirmed in the following terms the two-step methodology which it had previously set out in the case of Minister for Justice and Equality (Deficiencies in the system of justice, C-216/18 PPU, 25.7.2018):

Where the executing judicial authority … has material … indicating that there is a real risk of breach of the fundamental right to a fair trial guaranteed by the second paragraph of Article 47 of the Charter, on account of systemic or generalised deficiencies so far as concerns the independence of the issuing Member State’s judiciary, that authority must determine, specifically and precisely, whether, having regard to his or her personal situation, to the nature of the offence for which he or she is being prosecuted and the factual context in which the European arrest warrant was issued, and in the light of the information provided by that Member State pursuant to Article 15(2) of that framework decision, there are substantial grounds for believing that that person will run such a risk if he or she is surrendered to that Member State. (§ 52)

Thus, according to the CJEU, the possibility of refusing to execute a European arrest warrant for such reasons presupposes a two-step examination covering, first, the general situation of the judiciary in the State concerned and, secondly, the impact which this situation is likely to have on the fairness of the trial to which the person concerned will be subjected if surrendered (§ 53). Accordingly, it would appear that such a refusal could not lawfully be decided under Union law on the basis of evidence which concerned only the person to be surrendered and was not backed-up by evidence of existing systemic or generalised deficiencies concerning the independence of the issuing Member State’s judiciary (see, in the same vein, concerning Art. 4 of the EU-Charter (prohibition of ill-treatment), CJUE 5.4.2016, Aranyosi et Căldăraru, C-404/15 et C-659/15 PPU).

This methodology is in contrast with the one applied by the ECHR in respect of applications challenging the execution of a EAW on account of a violation of Article 6 of the Convention (fair trial), as in Pirozzi v. Belgium (17.4.2018, no. 21055/11; discussed in a post below). While the ECHR would certainly, in such a context, have regard to any systemic or general deficiencies in the issuing Member State, the existence of such deficiencies would not be a pre-requisite to any finding of a breach in an individual case. This is because, in the context of an individual application under Article 34 of the Convention, the ECHR focuses on the particular circumstances of the individual case (see, mutatis mutandis, Taxquet v. Belgium, 16.11.2010, no. 926/05, § 83).

Such methodological differences may well generate different protection levels. It would indeed appear that, in the event of a real risk that a person, if surrendered, will not have a fair trial in the issuing Member State for reasons having to do with her personal circumstances, such as her political opinions or sexual orientation, the execution of the EAW could not lawfully be refused under Union law in the absence of additional evidence about systemic or generalised deficiencies affecting the judiciary in that same Member State. By contrast, the mere fact that the execution of a EAW would, even without such systemic or generalised deficiencies, entail a real risk of the person concerned being the victim of a “flagrant denial of a fair trial” would amount to a breach of Article 6 of the Convention (see ECHR 7.7.1989, Soering v. United Kingdom, no. 14038/88, § 113; 4.5.2010, Stapleton v. Ireland (dec.), no. 56588/07, § 25).