Monday, January 17

‘Love Actually’ to defend the rule of law in Poland

On a summer day in 2017, Sylwia Gregorczyk-Abram, a 34-year-old lawyer, heard a peculiar idea. A colleague, jurist Michał Wawrykiewicz, texted him with a proposal. Like her, he was concerned about the reforms that the Polish nationalist government was promoting in the judicial system and wondered how they could convince citizens that the independence of the judiciary was not an abstract issue but the foundation of democracy.

On tour with the rebel judges of Poland defending democracy people by people

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“He shared a crazy idea with me,” he recalls. “A resource to convince people, citizens, that the independence of the judiciary is crucial. Ask celebrities and actors to do it for us, with references to comedies that everyone knows.”

Gregorczyk-Abram was the right person for the job. Since 2006, he has been working at the Warsaw branch of an international law firm and had co-founded Constitution Week in Poland, an initiative in which lawyers give talks in schools to sensitize adolescents about the relevance of the legal system. She called her friend Maria Ejchart-Dubois, a human rights expert and co-founder of Constitution Week, who in turn contacted Paulina Kieszkowska-Knapik, a renowned expert on pharmaceutical law.

The four had met at one of the most massive demonstrations in Poland in years. “People were protesting all over Poland on every street where there was a court. They instinctively realized that something had been taken from them,” explains Wawrykiewicz. And that was the spark to create Wolne Sądy, the Free Tribunals Foundation.

Communicate through movies

Instead of writing legal documents and reading legal tomes, the lawyers opted for adaptation, scripting and directing of short films aimed at making the rule of law visible. “Imagine you have a car accident and the other driver has some kind of relationship with a politician,” says Ejchart-Dubois. “Is the court going to be fair? Or that you are a victim of domestic violence and the aggressor is a member of a political party.” Both assumptions have occurred subsequently, says Kieszkowska-Knapik. In fact, he points out that there have been “hundreds of cases.”

The first videos have been carried out by actors, artists and writers, from the presenter of the program equivalent to Triumph operation in Poland, Barbara Kurdej-Szatan, up to the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. Some of the biggest hits came from Wolne Sądy’s own attorneys. They put a legal twist on a scene from Richard Curtis’ romantic comedy Love Actually. They play children who are given a gift from a nightmare before Christmas. Or sing a rap about the Constitution in a tribute to the video clip Sabotage of the Beastie Boys, which parodied the police series of the 70s.

“It was a new concept for us, communicating through movies, without writing articles or legal books,” says Gregorczyk-Abram, who spoke with The Guardian In the company of fellow lawyers in Brussels, where he collected an award from the European Parliament.

For her part, Anna Wójcik, a researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences, points out that “they were very innovative because they began to communicate in a format that was very attractive to the general public. Of course, it can be said that it is attractive to people with certain tastes. , who live in urban areas … and provided accessible information about what is happening. ”

Poland “never abides by verdicts”

The videos were just the beginning of a legal odyssey that took them to the great halls of the highest European courts and to the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels. Wolne Sądy’s lawyers believe that the role they have played has been decisive in convincing the authorities of the European Union to take legal action against the Polish government for the forced retirement of the Supreme Court justices, an attempt by the ruling party Ley and Justice (PiS) to control the highest Polish court.

The group has brought dozens of cases before the EU’s highest court in Luxembourg and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In a historic victory, this month the ECHR deemed the Polish government “in blatant defiance of the rule of law.” According to Wolne Sądy’s count, the Polish government has lost 13 times in 13 sentences from the highest European courts. The group has also represented Polish judges who have been pressured by the Executive to leave their jobs, such as Małgorzata Gersdorf, the President of the Supreme Court, whom the Government tried, without success, force your exit through early retirement.

“The government never abides by the verdicts,” says Kieszkowska-Knapik. “It’s amazing. So after each case … we need another.”

Part of Wolne Sądy’s job is to document each of the reforms PiS has introduced into the judicial system since it came to power in 2015, summarized in the 2,000 report Days of Anarchy. The objective is to offer a future executive a roadmap to recover the rule of law.

“Each and every one of the ideas that we have in our plan are protected by the judgments of one of the European courts, so they are not just our opinions”, points out Ejchart-Dubois. “That is why we started all those procedures in the Court of Justice, in the Human Rights Court, just to have evidence, to cover the sentences.”


Now they want to convince the opposition parties to join the road map, to avoid internal haggling over the rule of law.

As the PiS enters its seventh winter in power, all of this pro-bono work, in addition to their day-to-day jobs, is taking its toll. “We are very tired,” acknowledges Ejchart-Dubois. “But we are like guys on a rope: when one falls, the rest get up,” says Kieszkowska-Knapik.

All four began their legal careers at a more favorable time, as Poland was on its way to joining the European Union. “We have observed since 1989 that Poland was evolving, going in the right direction, approaching Western civilization, we did not want to miss that opportunity,” says Wawrykiewicz.

The Polish government is likely to keep them busy. The ruling party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, is planning a new reform of the Supreme Court. According to documents leaked and seen by the Polish media, if such a project materializes, any Supreme Court judge wishing to continue in office will need the approval of the government-controlled national council of the judiciary.

“It is quite twisted,” says Anna Wójcik, who notes that the proposals would make it easier to initiate disciplinary proceedings against judges. “To whom are disciplinary procedures opened today in Poland? People who are critical of the government.”

Wolne Sądy’s attorneys will be on hand to challenge any such plan, on screen and in court. Kieszkowska-Knapik believes that without this social resistance Poland would be like Belarus.

Translation by Emma Reverter.