March 11, 2016 / 5:37 PM / in 2 years

European rights body says Poland's court changes threaten rule of law

VENICE/WARSAW (Reuters) - A pan-European rights body accused Poland’s conservative government on Friday of undermining democracy by crippling its top court, a move that could put Warsaw on a collision course with the European Union.

Judges of Poland's Constitutional Court attend a session at the Constitutional Tribunal in Warsaw, Poland March 8, 2016. Picture taken on March 8, 2016. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

While the opinion of the rights body is non-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. The Commission said it would review the rights body’s opinion in April.

After sweeping to power last October, Poland’s eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party enacted a law increasing the number of judges at the constitutional court required to make rulings and changing the order in which cases are heard.

The court itself has said the new rules are illegal, effectively putting the changes in limbo.

“A high attendance quorum, the requirement of a two-thirds majority for adopting judgments and a strict rule making it impossible to deal with urgent cases, notably in their combined effect, would have made the (constitutional court) ineffective,” the advisory panel to the Council of Europe, a rights body, said in a statement.

“Therefore, these amendments would have endangered not only the rule of law but also the functioning of the democratic system,” said the panel, called the Venice Commission.

A Polish government official said after the Venice Commission adopted its findings that Warsaw would respect its views but gave no details on what Poland would be willing to change in its top court reform, if anything.

An official said the government would respond to the Venice Commission on Saturday at 0930 GMT.

Domestic critics say the legal changes have made it difficult for judges to review, let alone challenge, the government’s legislation. The EU, which Poland joined in 2004, and the United States have also expressed concerns.

On Wednesday, the constitutional court ruled that the new rules affecting it were illegal. The government then accused the court of playing politics.

The Venice Commission’s representatives told reporters that the government needs to recognize Wednesday’s court verdict as a prerequisite to solving the constitutional crisis.

PiS officials have been defiant so far, however, with PiS calling a leaked draft of the opinion “legally absurd”.

They also appear to have public support, with the latest poll putting them on 37 percent support, almost 20 points ahead of the opposition and little changed from their showing in the October election.

“Democracy is in very good shape – there are demonstrations, meetings, protests,” a senior PiS official, Beata Kempa, told public broadcaster TVP Info.

“We’re not sending in police with bullets against people, they are allowed to express their views ... The Venice Commission’s opinion is not binding. We can take it into account, (but) we don’t have to take it into account.”

The commission’s opinion echoes that issued in 2013 in response to legislation introduced by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom the panel accused of threatening constitutional justice.

Additional reporting by Agnieszko Barteczko in Warsaw; Writing by Justyna Pawlak and Wiktor Szary; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Hugh Lawson

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