Poland’s Supreme Court has ruled that lockdown measures restricting freedom of movement that were introduced by government decree last March “violated the law”. The court’s decision came in response to the first three of numerous appeals filed by Poland’s commissioner for human rights to annul files handed out during that time.
The Supreme Court cancelled the verdicts of lower courts and, as a result, three men that received tickets for violating the restrictions will not be required to pay them.
Legal experts have pointed to the fact that, in the light of the ruling, both previous and future regulations limiting constitutional freedoms that are introduced by government decree may not be legally binding.
In the early stages of the pandemic last spring, the Polish government imposed some of the strictest movement restrictions in EU to mitigate the spread of the virus, allowing people to leave the house only for work or “matters necessary for everyday life”.
During this period, thousands of fines were issued by the police to people violating the restrictions. Now the Supreme Court has overruled the verdicts of lower courts in three of those cases.
One of them concerned a man who received a 100 złoty (€22) fine for “standing in front of a closed shop…in order to stretch his legs and chat with a friend”.
In another, a ticket of 200 złoty was issued for “strolling without purpose on Holy Saturday” during Easter, informed the court’s press office, quoted by TVN24. The last one concerned a man punished with a fine of 500 zloty for being in a park with friends.
Poland’s commissioner for human rights, Adam Bodnar, has filed numerous complaints to administrative courts over the fines issued to those violating the restrictions and has also appealed to the Supreme Court for annulment of lower-court verdicts.
Tweeting in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling yesterday, Bodnar said that the judges had “recognised that the pandemic restrictions introduced in spring 2020 on the basis of decrees grossly violated the law”.
“This means that both previous and future regulations limiting constitutional freedoms, as long as they are introduced by decree, will not be legally binding,” noted Andrzej Michałowski, a lawyer, speaking to Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. As a consequence, other restrictions may be successfully challenged, he said.
“If the public authorities have been issuing faulty regulations for over a year now, hoping that the citizens will follow them out of fear, and only a few will decide to contest them, this is not law-making but just craftiness [cwaniactwo],” said Michałowski.
Last spring, Polish legal experts warned that many of the restrictions being introduced had no proper legal basis, in particular because the government refused to declare a state of emergency (which would have automatically delayed presidential elections that the ruling party wanted to hold as early as possible).
Since then, a series of court judgements, often in response to cases brought by those seeking to challenge fines issued against them, have found restrictions to be unlawful. That has in turn encouraged some businesses to reopen in defiance of lockdown, which they claim is illegal.
The health minister, Adam Niedzielski, warned that “hard times are coming” and that, if the healthcare system is overburdened, a “total lockdown” might be introduced ahead of Easter.
Yet those regulations may also be legally challenged, according to Mikołaj Małecki, a legal scholar at the Jagiellonian University. “The Supreme Court has confirmed that last year’s ban on movement was illegal [and] this applies equally to many other restrictions,” he tweeted. “Tightening [of restrictions] during the third wave will be unlawful.”