Council of Europe says Poland risks lawsuit over court reform

WARSAW (Reuters) - The paralysis in Poland’s constitutional court puts Warsaw at risk of a lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights, the head of the rights body the Council of Europe said on Monday.

Poland’s eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party has faced growing pressure from the EU, the United States and other bodies since it swept to power in the bloc’s largest eastern member state in October and increased controls on media and other institutions.

The conservatives have enacted a law increasing the number of judges required to make rulings on the Constitutional Tribunal and changing the order in which cases are heard.

Critics say the changes have made it difficult for judges to review new legislation, let along challenge it, and the court itself has struck them down as unconstitutional. The government has refused to recognize that ruling, effectively putting it in legal limbo.

“The concern is that if the constitutional crisis continues a ... complaint or application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg may arrive,” the Council of Europe’s secretary general, Thorbjoern Jagland, told reporters in Warsaw.

The European Court of Human Rights is run by the 47-member state Council of Europe.

In March, the pan-European rights body said the Polish reforms could endanger “not only the rule of law but also the functioning of the democratic system”, recommending the government recognize the constitutional court’s ruling on its legislation.

While the opinion of the rights body is not binding, it will carry weight at the EU Commission, which has begun a process to monitor the rule of law in Poland that could end up in Warsaw being suspended from voting in the European Union.

To prepare for the discussion with Poland’s EU peers expected to start on Wednesday, Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans travels to Warsaw on Tuesday.

Writing by Marcin Goclowski and Wiktor Szary; editing by Andrew Roche