Top Polish judge orders partial freezing of disputed disciplinary chamber

FILE PHOTO: General view of Supreme Court in Warsaw, Poland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

WARSAW (Reuters) - The head of Poland's Supreme Court on Thursday partially froze a disciplinary chamber for judges at the heart of a deepening dispute with the European Union over judicial independence that could see Warsaw face fines or even an eventual loss of funding.

Poland faces an Aug. 16 deadline to disband the disciplinary chamber, which the EU says does not guarantee the judiciary's independence and undercuts the bloc's laws, leaving a divided ruling coalition searching for a way out that will allow it to avoid financial penalties while not being seen to back down.

In two orders published late on Thursday, the president of Poland's Supreme Court, Malgorzata Manowska, said that no new cases will go to the chamber until legislative changes are introduced or until the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issues a final verdict on the matter.

The orders set a final date of Nov. 15 for this suspension.

For disciplinary cases that have already been assigned to judges, Manowska or the head of the Disciplinary Chamber will ask them to decide whether or not to abstain from hearing them.

Manowska had previously lifted a partial suspension of the disciplinary chamber after Poland's constitutional court ruled that the country should not implement interim measures imposed by the CJEU as they were against the constitution.

At the time, Manowska said she was "deeply convinced" that the disciplinary chamber was independent.

She later wrote to President Andrzej Duda urging him and lawmakers to make changes to create an effective system for disciplining judges that cannot be called into question.

Poland's ruling nationalists Law and Justice (PiS) say the CJEU is overstepping its mandate by ruling on the Polish judicial system, and that its reforms will remove a residue of Communist influence and stop some judges seeing themselves as above the law.

Opposition parties, human rights groups and the EU say that giving the justice minister more control over judges, forcing some out and promoting others possibly on political grounds, undermines the independence of the judiciary.

(Reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Alan Charlish; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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