In the case of Openbaar Ministerie (Tribunal established by law in the issuing Member State) (joined cases C-562/21 PPU and C-563/21 PPU, 22.2.2022) the CJEU gave another ruling on the execution of a European arrest warrant (EAW) in the face of a (risk of a) breach of the right to a fair trial (Article 47(2) of the EU-Charter) in Poland. This time, the question asked by the executing judicial authority, the Amsterdam District Court, was about the consequences to be drawn from generalised deficiencies relating to the independence of the judiciary in that country.
In terms of the interaction between EU law and the European Convention on Human Rights, the picture resulting from the CJEU’s ruling is a contrasted one. On the one hand, as regards the requirements flowing from the right to an independent tribunal, the CJEU underscored the common ground existing between its own case-law and that of the European Court of Human Rights (§§ 56-57).
As a consequence, and probably for the first time, the CJEU considered that the case-law of the ECtHR finding a breach of the Convention requirements in respect of a tribunal established by law, by reason of the procedure for the appointment of judges, could be taken into account by the executing judicial authority for the purpose of establishing the existence of systemic or generalised deficiencies in the issuing Member State (§ 79). In the same vein, the CJEU considered of equal relevance in this context the case-law of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal challenging the primacy of EU law and the binding nature of the Convention, as well as the binding force of judgments of the CJEU and of the ECtHR (§ 80). In other words, and indeed very interestingly, in the CJEU’s opinion violations of the Convention seem to be part of the picture to be considered when assessing the existence of systemic or generalised deficiencies within the meaning of EU-law.
On the other hand, however, differences remain in terms of the methodology applied to the fundamental rights concerned in a case like this, with the CJEU confirming and further elaborating on the two-step examination required for the assessment of whether (the risk of) a breach of fundamental rights can justify an exception to the obligation to execute a EAW (on this issue, see also Openbaar Ministerie (Independence of the issuing judicial authority and The EAW under the Convention).
In this connection, the CJEU elaborated at great length on the need for systemic or generalised deficiencies to be individualised, i.e. for their impact on the personal situation of the person concerned to be duly demonstrated by that same person. This should be done on the basis of a several criteria which are enumerated by the CJEU but which at the same time would appear, in their combination, to be of a rather complex handling (§§ 84 et seq.). At this point, one may therefore ask whether taken together, the overall amount and the nature of the evidence required does not represent a standard of proof which in the end is higher than the one applied by the ECtHR. If so, this would result in lesser protection for the person concerned. In support of this rather strict approach, the CJEU referred to the preservation of the effectiveness of the EAW system (§§ 47 and 63), the fundamental rights of the victims of the offences concerned (§ 60) as well as the fight against impunity (§ 62).
By contrast, the ECtHR does not consider systemic or generalised deficiencies in the country of destination to be a precondition for a real and individual risk of a breach of the Convention in that country to be established (see, concerning Article 3 of the Convention, Bivolaru and Moldovan). This would seem to be in line with the well-established principle according to which the Court’s role is not to decide in abstracto whether the law is compatible with the Convention, but rather to verify whether the manner in which the law was applied in the particular circumstances of a case complied with the Convention (see, among many others, Denis and Irvine v. Belgium, § 195).
Yet, it is also true that under Article 6 of the Convention, only a flagrant breach of the right to a fair trial in the country of destination can stand in the way of a deportation (see Soering v. United Kingdom, Stapleton v. Ireland). However, it would not appear too difficult to consider an established lack of independence of a court to amount to such a flagrant breach.
In the end, as the case of Bivolaru and Moldovan shows, should a decision to execute a EAW be challenged before the ECtHR, the latter will focus on the individual circumstances of the person concerned. Under this approach, the absence of (proof of) systemic or generalised deficiencies cannot dispense the national authorities from nonetheless examining the personal risk incurred in the event of a deportation of that person. In other words, such deficiencies are no obligatory starting point or requirement under the Convention.
Seen from this perspective, the position of the CJEU comes down to considering that only such risks can be relevant for the protection of fundamental rights in an extradition context which originate in systemic or generalised deficiencies. Yet, while such deficiencies are often likely to have an impact on individual situations, this would not appear to justify the conclusion that they represent the only possible source of relevant individual risks. As the Strasbourg case-law shows, such risks can indeed also have their roots, for example, in specific circumstances or, as the CJEU itself suggests, in statements made in the context of a specific case (§ 97).