The controversial reform of the Supreme Court in Poland reducing the age of retirement for judges ‘violates’ EU law and the independence of the judiciary, the European Court of Justice has ruled.
“The application of the measure lowering the retirement age of the judges of the Supreme Court … is not justified by a legitimate objective and undermines the principle of the irremovability of judges, that principle being essential to their independence”, the Court said in its ruling.
In April 2018, Poland’s conservative nationalist government approved a law that reduced the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65, a measure that would have forced about one third of the judiciary into early retirement.
Judges could apply to stay on beyond 65, but their applications had to be approved by Poland’s president, which many judges saw as a fundamental threat to their independence.
In October 2018, the European Commission brought the case to the European Court which called for a halt to the reforms. Although Poland complied with the emergency ruling, the Commission pursued the case in order to obtain an official verdict.
In that judgement, which was delivered on Monday, the judges ruled that the retroactive application of the law violated European legislation, as did the provision granting discretionary powers to the President to decide without “any objective and verifiable criterion” which judges could have the date of their retirement extended.
The governing Law and Justice party (PiS) had argued that the reforms were necessary in order to modernise the Polish justice system and eliminate judges who remained in place since communist times.
But critics had argued that the real aim of the reform was to clear out the judiciary and appoint more subservient judges who would be less critical of the government’s hard-line policies.
The ruling is part of an infringement procedure opened by the European Commission against the Polish government, which could ultimately involve economic sanctions, if it continues to violate European rules.
In December, Brussels triggered its harshest disciplinary procedure against Poland, known as Article 7, which is only invoked where there is a risk of “serious violation of the rule of law”, and which in theory could lead to the suspension of Poland’s voting rights within the EU.
On Tuesday the EU welcomed the ECJ’s decision.
“This is an important ruling in support of the independence of the judiciary in Poland and beyond,” the EU said in a statement.
“It is also a welcome clarification of the principles of irremovability and independence of judges, which are essential elements of effective judicial protection in the European Union, the Commission said.