Lawyers turn to romantic comedies to fight for rule of law in Poland | Poland
It was a summer day in 2017 when Sylwia Gregorczyk-Abram, a 34-year-old lawyer, heard a crazy idea.
She had received a message from a legal acquaintance, Michał Wawrykiewicz, who, like her, was worried about the changes the Polish nationalist government was making to the justice system. He wondered how they could convince people that the independence of the judiciary was not an abstract subtlety but the solid foundation of democracy.
“He had this crazy idea,” she recalls. “How to convince people, citizens, why the independence of the judiciary is so important. Ask famous people, celebrities, actors to do it for us.
Gregorczyk-Abram was the right fit for the job. Working in the Warsaw office of an international law firm since 2006, she co-founded Constitution Week in Poland, an initiative where lawyers give lectures in schools to educate teenagers about the law. She called her friend Maria Ejchart-Dubois, human rights expert and co-founder of Constitution Week, who in turn contacted Paulina Kieszkowska-Knapik, a high-profile specialist in pharmaceutical law.
The four met at one of the biggest protests in Poland in years. “People were demonstrating all over Poland in all the streets where the court is located. They instinctively realized that something was being carried away, ”said Wawrykiewicz. And that was the spark to create Wolne Sądy, the Free Courts Foundation.
Instead of drafting legal documents and browsing legal books, lawyers found themselves acting, scripting and directing short films intended to make the rule of law real. “Imagine you were in a car accident and the other driver was somehow tied to a politician,” Ejchart-Dubois said. “Will the court be fair?” Or you are a victim of domestic violence and the perpetrator is a member of a political party.
These two cases then materialized, Kieszkowska-Knapik said. There have been “hundreds of examples,” she said.
Early films starred actors, artists, and writers, from The Voice of Poland host Barbara Kurdej-Szatan, to Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk. Some of the biggest hits have been played by Wolne Sądy’s lawyers themselves: putting a legal twist on a scene from Richard Curtis’ romantic comedy Love Actually; playing children receiving a nightmarish Christmas present; rapping about the constitution in a tribute to the Beastie Boys video parody of the 1970s American police show, Sabotage.
“It was a new concept for us, to communicate through films, not to write articles, not to write books,” said Gregorczyk-Abram, addressing his fellow lawyers in Brussels where they received an award from the European Parliament.
Anna Wójcik, researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences, said: “They were very innovative because they started to communicate in a format that was very attractive to the general public. Of course, you can say that it is attractive to people with certain tastes, living in urban areas… But they have provided accessible information on what is going on.
The videos were just the start of a legal odyssey that would take them to the grand chambers of the highest European courts and to the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels. Wolne Sądy’s lawyers believe they helped persuade European authorities to take legal action against the Polish government for the forced retirement of Supreme Court judges, an attempt by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to control the highest Polish court.
The group has filed 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 ruled that the Polish government was “in blatant disregard for the rule of law”. In 13 decisions of the highest European courts, the Polish government has lost 13 times, according to Wolne Sądy’s tally.
The group also represented dismissed Polish judges, including Małgorzata Gersdorf, the president of the Supreme Court, who the government tried unsuccessfully to expel through early retirement.
“And yet the government never follows the verdicts,” Kieszkowska-Knapik said. ” It’s amazing. So after each case … we need another case.
Part of Wolne Sądy’s job is documenting every change PiS has made to the legal system since taking office in 2015, summarized in the 2000 Days of Lawlessness report.. He wants to give a future government a roadmap to return to the rule of law.
“Every idea that we have in our plan is covered by the judgments of one of the European courts, so these are not our opinions,” said Ejchart-Dubois. “That’s why we started all these proceedings in the court of law, in the human rights tribunal, just to have evidence, to cover the judgments.”
They are trying to convince the opposition parties to unite behind this roadmap, to avoid internal bargaining on the rule of law.
As PiS enters its seventh winter in office, all that volunteer work besides their daily jobs is taking its toll. “We are extremely tired,” said Ejchart-Dubois. “But we’re like guys with a rope: when we fall, the rest [step up]Kieszkowska-Knapik added.
All four started their legal careers on more optimistic days, as Poland moved towards EU membership. “From 1989 we watched Poland develop, move in the right direction, move towards Western civilization, we didn’t want to lose it,” Wawrykiewicz said.
The Polish government is likely to keep them in business. The ruling party controlled by Jarosław Kaczyński is considering a new overhaul of the Supreme Court. According to leaked documents seen by Polish media, the draft would mean that any Supreme Court judge wishing to remain in office would have to be approved by the government-controlled National Judicial Council.
“It’s pretty diabolical,” said Anna Wójcik, who observed that the proposals would make it easier to initiate disciplinary proceedings against judges. “Who initiated disciplinary proceedings against them today in Poland? People who criticize the government.
Wolne Sądy’s lawyers will be there to challenge such a project, on screen and in court. “Without this social resistance, we would be like Belarus,” Kieszkowska-Knapik said.