European rights ruling opens way for challenges to Poland's top court

WARSAW (Reuters) - The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Friday that a Polish company had been denied its right to a proper hearing due to the illegal appointment of a Constitutional Court judge, opening the way for further challenges to Poland's top court.

Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has introduced a series of judiciary reforms that critics, including the European Union's executive, say may harm the independence of the courts. PiS legislators have also elected three constitutional court judges to roles already filled by the previous parliament.

The case concerned one of those judges and the ruling by Europe's rights court raises the prospect that other verdicts of the Polish constitutional court will be questioned.

Constitutional Court head Julia Przylebska said the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was beyond its scope and would not have any impact on Poland's legal system.

"This is a gross violation of the law and has no basis whatsoever in acts of international law constructing the status of the tribunal in Strasbourg," she told news agency PAP.

Turf producer Xero Flor had lodged a complaint with the constitutional court after lower courts rejected its compensation claim for turf destroyed by wild boar and deer. In Poland, the state gives compensation for damage done by wildlife but the company said it had not received enough.

The constitutional court declared the complaint inadmissible in 2017, but the bench included Judge M.M., one of the three duplicate judges sworn in by president Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally. The case refers to the judge by his initials only.

The EHCR said "the applicant company had been denied its right to a 'tribunal established by law' owing to the irregularities in the appointment of Judge M.M. specifically".

Laurent Pech, Professor of European Law at Middlesex University London, said the ruling was "unprecedented".

"This is the first time as far as an EU member state is concerned that the national constitutional tribunal is found to be unlawfully composed."

Some lawyers also point to the fact that the judgment could open the way to questioning any ruling involving a duplicate judge, sowing chaos in Poland's legal system.

ECHR rulings are binding on members of the Council of Europe like Poland, but some remain outstanding for years.

(Reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; additional reporting by Alan Charlish; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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