Return of lay judges to the courtroom

The proposal to amend civil procedural law was prompted by a collective petition to the Senate. submitters – The Judicial Council of the District Court in Nowy Sącz – proposals to make the necessary changes to bring lay judges back to the arbitration committees of ordinary courts in civil cases.

Let us recall that the July 2021 amendment to the Anti-Crisis Shield introduced provisions according to which during the period of the epidemic threat or epidemic condition announced due to COVID-19 and – most importantly – within a year after the last of them has been recalled, in first and second instance the court hears cases in a single judge. There is a wicket for judges – the president of the court can order a case to be examined by a panel of three judges if he sees fit because of the particular complexity or precedent nature of the case, but there is no question of that. … lay judges.

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One-person teams without judges

The petitioners are of the opinion that the binding legal regulations lead to the complete removal of the social factor from the trial in civil cases, which is contrary to the provisions of the Polish Constitution (Article 182) guarantee the participation of citizens in the administration of justice.

In the opinion of the submitters there is no justification for maintaining restrictions that preclude collegiality in panels adjudicating in civil cases. They claim that most jurors have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and epidemic restrictions are now being relaxed in every area of ​​society, it is therefore not appropriate to maintain the restrictions introduced.

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The judges have similar feelings. At the beginning of June, the Association of Polish Judges Iustitia took a position on the enforcement of anti-covid regulations, including those concerning one-man teams. It raised the issue of the effectiveness of “restoring the participation of lay judges in the administration of justice”.

Changes on two points

The Senate draft amendment is brief: In the law of March 2, 2020 on special solutions related to the prevention, control and control of COVID-19, other infectious diseases and crises caused by them, point 4 is repealed. † 15zzs1 paragraph. 1 point 4 of the amended Act, the court shall recognize one judge in that court after the effective date of this Act, until the case has been settled in a particular instance.
The change must take effect 14 days after its announcement.

This regulation is supported by the human rights defender, who considers the current state of courts to be unconstitutional.

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The Minister of Health is yes, and justice is no

In response to this bill, the Ministry of Health and on behalf of State Secretary Waldemar Kraska has not submitted any comments. On the other hand, the Minister of Justice thought it was too early for changes.

He recalled that the implementation of these anti-pandemic solutions was dictated by the need to streamline procedures to realistically guarantee citizens their constitutional right to a court, including the principle that cases should be investigated without delay, as well as the need to threat of people sitting together in a collective composition. In his opinion, the chosen solution proved effective, as it minimized the risk of infection between collegiate structures, where it was impossible to maintain the recommended safe social distance of two meters.† And also – as emphasized by the Minister of Justice – it made it possible to reduce the backlog in courts that arose in the early stages of the SARS-Cov-2 virus epidemic, where the judiciary functioned in special, extremely difficult circumstances. At the same time, the minister indicated that pursuant to art. 15zzs1 paragraph. 4 of the Anti-COVID-19 Act, this provision does not apply to bankruptcies and restructuring.

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Secretary of State Katarzyna Frydrych also pointed out that despite the calming of the epidemiological situation in Poland and the gradual restoration of the work of the courts to the conditions in which they worked before the epidemic, the current situation does not justify the complete withdrawal of the solutions introduced in the COVID-19 era that limit the collegiality of the handling of cases by courts. First of all, it should be noted that the situation regarding the spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus infections and the resulting COVID-19 disease surprised everyone and caused huge disruptions in the functioning of many public institutions, also in the judiciary. The most serious of these were the cancellation of hearings due to illness of both the court and the litigants, as well as difficulties in filling multi-member courts.

There are no jurors in the courts

Judge Anna Begier of the court in Września emphasizes that the lay judges have been completely eliminated from the courts after last year’s change. – While in the case of professional formations it is possible to request the president of the court for the appointment of a three-person panel, in the case of lay judges – no. Even constitutional issues aside, there are no jurors in courts, he says.

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In her opinion Professional judges need contact with non-appeal judges, and society should at least participate to a minimum in the administration of justice and have access to the functioning of the court. – Of course, it is possible to discuss what cases should be composed of lay judges, why lay judges are provided for cases to establish the ineffectiveness of paternity recognition, and in cases of refusal of paternity – no, but they should certainly participate in the justice system. He emphasizes that especially in matters as important as adoption. He adds that it is also not known why the exclusion of lay judges should last a year after the end of the epidemic. – While it is likely that professional judges will be able to focus only on cases in which they are referees and thus more quickly eliminate the expected pop-andemic backlog – in the case of lay judges such an argument does not work, because they do not handle other cases on their own – notes the judge on.

Judge Anna Rybicka-Hałabis of the Lublin-West District Court in Lublin speaks in a similar vein. – I believe that the participation of lay judges as a social factor in the administration of justice is still justified. The presence of citizens in courts is also guaranteed by the Constitution. I know from my own professional experience that lay judges with their knowledge and life experience can be very helpful and make it easier for the professional judge to solve certain problems. They are also, in a sense, representatives of the court in their community, and many of them are socially active – he emphasizes.

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