“Justice in the life of the state is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.” The words of Plato, and whatever feelings of justice may reside on the hearts and souls of Polish citizens, for the Polish prime minister the state’s justice system is in need of extensive reforms.
Beata Szydło was speaking on Friday at the launch of a campaign to inform the public of those changes to the country’s judiciary which the government believes to be indispensable. The campaign is entitled “Justice” and will be run in Poland and abroad by the Polish National Foundation, an organisation set up by 17 state-owned companies that aims to promote Poland internationally, whose head, Cezary Jurkiewicz, told reporters that, despite claims by critics, the campaign was “purely informational” and neither political nor designed to promote the view of a single political party.
The campaign is designed to show people “just how dysfunctional the Polish justice administration system is,” Szydło said, arguing that the legal changes were “expected by the Polish people.” “We do not want things to be the way they used to be; we want them to be different. And ‘different’ means that the Polish justice system should serve citizens,” Szydło said. Continuing her argument, she said that the campaign was needed in order to counter “information disseminated among the public, especially abroad, that the changes in the Polish judiciary are undemocratic.” According to the prime minister, this kind of message discredits Poland on the international arena.
It might be argued that there is a hint of shoot the messengerism at work here, since the changes thus far proposed have caused no little concern internationally, including the Venice Commission, European Parliament, and have caused the EU Commission to begin rule of law proceedings against Poland. Even Poland’s own president felt compelled in July to veto two of the three government backed bills to reform the judicial system, reforms which the opposition claimed were a threat to the rule of law, not least by the extensive power given to the minister of justice and chief prosecutor over the selection of judges. And that is to say nothing of the other spats with which Poland is engaged with the EU, nor the question of German war reparations, none of which, in the way they have been handled, do much to enhance Poland’s reputation.
For his part the Law and Justice party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, at the time described the president’s decision to veto those bills as a “serious mistake”. He said that judicial reform was vital, adding that the Polish courts were “sick” and “sick courts means a sick society.” The difficulty in the eyes of some, of course, being that the proposed cure seemed rather worse than the disease, although not in the eyes of the party leader with his unique insight into the health of society. A theme which no doubt figured in a meeting on Friday evening between the president and Kaczyński to discuss judicial reform.
President Duda supports “a real reform” of the judiciary, his spokesman, Krzysztof Łapiński, told reporters after the talks, adding that the president also said he hoped his proposals for reorganising the country’s Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary would be supported by the legislature. Duda “offered assurances” that the judicial proposals he had undertaken to draft would be fully “in line with the constitution” and “free from the flaws that the president previously identified in his vetoes,” Łapiński said. For her part, Law and Justice party’s spokeswoman, Beata Mazurek, said that the Duda-Kaczyński meeting focused on the president’s proposals for judicial changes and took place “in a very good atmosphere”.
Nobody would deny that Poland’s judicial system could be improved. Cases take far too long to make their way through the courts, something which could be vastly improved by the relatively simple step of improving timetabling and setting down cases for hearing in blocks of consecutive days rather than having individual hearing days held months apart. Similarly, if individual judges are thought to be corrupt, bring forward evidence and remove those who are adjudged guilty. But the problem with what has been proposed hitherto is that it involved a greater degree of political control over the appointment of judges and concentrated more power in the hands of the justice minister, than is generally considered to be prudent. Of course, if one believes that politicians, of any party, anywhere, are to be trusted to exercise divine standards of impartiality and wisdom, there is nothing to fear. But since this side of heaven lesser standards apply, so safeguards for justice are required. And judicial independence is one of those.