UPDATED: Norway is pulling out of talks with Poland about closer cooperation between courts in the two countries. After nearly three years of negotiations, Norway’s court administration (Domstolsadministrasjonen) has concluded that Poland’s current leaders simply want to turn its courts into a political tool.
“We can’t partner with a justice ministry that is actively undermining the function of the courts,” the head of Norway’s courts administration, Sven Marius Urke, told newspaper Aftenposten. Urke said that no other European country has undergone such a rapid and clear change for the worse as Poland. “This is exceptional in the development of rule of law in Europe,” he added.
The Catholic-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), which has ruled Poland since 2015, has carried out several reforms of the justice system, restricting the independence of Polish courts and judges in various ways. To justify such measures, the PiS government has criticized the courts for inefficiency and wielding too much power.
PiS has also claimed that its reform is supposedly needed to weed out what PiS sees as a legacy from the communist era. The reforms have stirred controversy within Poland and abroad, not least among most other member countries of the European Union. Poland has also drawn fierce critcism from human rights organizations and law associations around Europe. (Story continues below the video.)
The Norwegian judges’ professional association (Den norske Dommerforening) had requested an end to the talks. Earlier this year, several Norwegian lawyers and judges joined colleagues from across the European Union in Warsaw to march against Poland’s judicial reforms (see the video above).
Hans Petter Graver, a law professor who follows developments in Poland closely, supports the move to end the treaty talks. “It’s a correct decision, given the firm grip that Poland’s political authorities have on the judges,” he told weekly newspaper Morgenbladet.
Graver, a former dean of the law school at the Univerisity of Oslo, voiced particular concern over Poland’s use of disciplinary punishment of judges for court decisions and statements they make. “In doing so, Poland’s authorities are defining themselves out of the Western law community,” Graver told Morgenbladet. “They are no longer credible partners in projects that aim to strengthen the rule of law and functioning of the court system.”
A report by Iustitia, an independent Polish judges’ association, found that 34 judges have faced “harsh reprisals” between 2015 and 2019. As many as 36 prosecutors were also disciplined. The report, released over the weekend and cited by German news agency Deutsche Welle (DW), said punishment had been ordered for numerous perceived crimes including criticizing or questioning reforms introduced by the PiS government.
Punishment methods included demoting judges and prosecutors, having cases taken away from them, or being ordered to appear before disciplinary panels, DW reported in a summary of the report. Behavior resulting in disciplinary actions had included asking the European Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling or wearing T-shirts with the inscription ‘Constitution’, DW reported.
Sven Marius Urke of the Norwegian court administration Urke told Aftenposten that the dialogue with Polish officials had often seemed constructive, but at the same time, dismantling of the rule of law went on in Poland. He also said that further cooperation with Poland, with funding from the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS), in the current climate could create a false impression that Norway accepts what’s going on.
Norway’s foreign ministry believes that entering into a deal with Poland is now out of the question. “In view of recent developments in Poland and the decision from the courts administration, it’s clear that Norwegian authorities will not sign the agreement in its current form,” deputy foreign minister Audun Halvorsen wrote in a press release (external link). “This is a strong signal to Polish authorities, displaying Norway’s concern about the rule of law in Poland and the independence of its courts.”
A statement by Poland’s Ministry of justice, released in Polish on Friday, emphasized that Poland also “has comments” on the state of rule of law in Norway. Poland’s main complaint is about the child protection agency known as Barnevernet, which has been embroiled in several conflicts with Polish authorities on behalf of Polish parents living in Norway.
“We have strong support in this matter in rulings by the Europan Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. We defend and will defend Polish children and their parents when their rights are violated (…),” the statement said according to a Google translation. “Our position will not be affected by the fact that the Norwegian court administration may withdraw from cooperation.”
Igor Devold, a Polish-Norwegian film director and vocal activist of KOD (Committee for Defending Democracy in Poland), said the current situation is “tragic, but understandable given the numerous reforms the PiS government has carried out to limit the independence of Poland’s courts.” Devold accused Poland’s Law and Justice Party of “mixing apples and bananas” and “manipulating its own voters” by bringing up the Barnevernet controversy as a response to criticism.
“This populist government is using counter-strikes, conflict and obfuscation as rhetorical tools to create a feeling that Poland is surrounded by enemies,” Devold told Newsinenglish.no.
Norwegian newspapers commented on developments over the weekend, with Aftenposten editorializing that it’s time to cut off the current flow of funds to Poland. Tabloid Dagbladet’s editorial said that the rule of law is dying there and claimed there’s a great deal of unease within Norway’s Supreme court over the state of affairs in Poland.