Case Watch: European Court Pushes Poland to Speed Up Wheels of Justice

In “Case Watch” reports, lawyers at the Open Society Justice Initiative provide analysis of notable court decisions and cases that relate to our work to advance human rights law around the world.

Wiesław Rutkowski, a Polish citizen, was charged with a criminal offense in 2002. He then waited for seven years and ten months until being finally acquitted in 2010. Mariusz Orlikowski and Aleksandra Grabowska were involved in civil cases in Poland; the overall length of proceedings in the two cases was 12 years and 13, years respectively.

The three cases are not unusual in a country known for the glacial pace of its justice system. But change may be coming. Last week, in response to complaints from all three, and from 591 other applicants, the European Court of Human rights released a pilot judgment requiring Poland to take long-term efforts to improve the slow judicial system. In a further sign that Poland may be about to add some oil to the wheels of justice, last week also saw a new Code of Criminal Procedure enter into force that is intended to overhaul the criminal justice system in Poland and address the unreasonable length of proceedings that so many people suffer through.

But first, the pilot judgment (pilot judgments allow the court to issue a ruling covering multiple complaints regarding the same rights violation; they often involve specific recommendations for measures to fix the underlying issue). Unsurprisingly, the European court held that there had been violations of Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights in all three cases, which is the right to a hearing within a reasonable time. The court also held that Poland was in breach of Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) given the lack of a national mechanism for challenging the excessive length of proceedings.

This is interesting because Poland had already taken general measures in response to the 2000 Grand Chamber decision of Kudla v. Poland to try to accelerate proceedings. While the European Court welcomed these steps, it noted that the problem continued—indeed, there are currently 650 similar cases pending before the European Court and over 300 similar cases pending for execution before the Committee of Ministers. In the face of these huge numbers and the clear systemic problems in the Polish judicial system, the European Court decided to use the pilot judgment scheme to require Poland to make further consistent, long-term efforts to improve things.

The pilot judgment scheme is being used with increasing frequency at the European Court, and in some ways, this judgment could be seen as the European court giving the Polish government an opportunity to continue to improve their implementation of European court judgments. In past cases, the court and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have noted approvingly that the Polish government has demonstrated an active commitment to implement judgments and take measures intended to remedy systemic defects.

At the core of this active commitment is the new permanent sub-commission for the execution of judgments, created by the Polish Sejm (lower house) in February 2014. The subcommission, composed of 11 MPs, meets regularly to control the implementation of judgments from the court, which can pose complex legal and practical issues.

This pilot judgment comes at a particularly good time, given that Poland’s parliament passed a new criminal procedure code into force on July 1, 2015. This code is a major overhaul of the criminal justice system structure and processes. Among many other things, it also an attempt to address the excessive formalism of the existing laws and a cumbersome and slow-moving appeals procedure.

The hope is that the ECHR pilot judgment, and the new criminal code of procedure, will now provide Poland’s legislators with the tools they need bring about the reform needed to create a more efficient, and more humane, justice system.

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