October 11, 2019 / 3:55 PM / 8 days ago

Poland's justice minister lays out court reform plans before election

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s justice minister outlined plans for a further overhaul of the justice system in comments published on Friday, two days before an election the ruling nationalists are expected to win.

FILE PHOTO: Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro attends a government meeting in Warsaw, Poland July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

The Law and Justice (PiS) party’s partners in the European Union, rights groups and opposition parties have already voiced concern about reforms of the judiciary which they say weaken democracy and threaten the independence of courts.

But, in an interview with Catholic newspaper Nasz Dziennik, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro set out plans for further judicial reforms if the governing party retains power on Sunday.

“The most important thing is to finish off the structural reform, because the Polish judiciary is overgrown,” he said.

“We have in fact four levels of court ... I think they could be reduced to three, studies and analyses show that. We could manage courts better this way.”

Some government critics and independent experts have said changing the structure of courts could allow the government to reappoint most judges and send those who are critical of the government to distant courts or into retirement.

“The plan seems clear and it will probably boil down to removing inconvenient people from judging,” said judge Bartlomiej Przymusinski, spokesman for Polish Judges Association “Iustitia”.

“They could not do it through disciplinary proceedings, because the European Court of Justice will probably block that, so they are trying a different way to force them into retirement or move them to faraway regions,” he added.

The European Union’s executive filed a case against PiS on Thursday at the bloc’s top court over new measures introduced for disciplining judges. The EU says they violate the principle of judicial independence.

The Polish constitution does not specify the structure of common courts beyond saying proceedings must include two instances. Experts say this it would be possible to introduce a change like that suggested by Ziobro could be introduced.

The main opposition grouping, Civic Coalition, has made maintaining the rule of law in the largest of the EU’s post-communist states a key theme in its campaign.

“What I understand as being Polish is completely different from the current government ... a lack of free courts is not a Polish tradition,” Civic Coalition’s candidate for prime minister, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, said.

Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko, Writing by Alan Charlish, Editing by Timothy Heritage

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