Court Watch Poland Foundation was established and launched its first monitoring program in 2010. Our aim is to organize watchdog activities in the area of the Polish system of justice – especially in the courts. Our first project, Citizen Monitoring of District Courts in Poland 2010/2011 resulted in a report based on ca. 2,500 observations from over 150 volunteer observers. The report, released in November 2011, attracted attention of both officials and the media. It was analyzed and recommended by the Ministry of Justice in a letter sent to all the courts in the country. The publication was followed by a series of 6 meetings with court directors and judges, to whom detailed reports for their local courts were presented.
The present report shows results of the second year of the program and is based on over 5,000 observations from over 500 volunteers and ca. 70 courts. This time, both regional and circuit courts were taken into account. Like the previous year, volunteers were asked to fill in two forms: one regarded the trial (fairness of the judge, respecting rights of participants and following legal procedures), the other – the court building infrastructure (e.g. accessibility for the disabled, public toilets, etc). Our methodology is fit for anybody who would like to visit their local courts and watch trials – no special knowledge of law is expected or required. Actually, unlike some other programs, including those previously conducted in Poland, our project aims at putting regular citizens, not lawyers or even law students, into the courtrooms. This enables us to reconstruct the perspective of ordinary citizens, who make for the majority of court clients, not legal professionals, who are insiders and tend to accept existing dysfunctions as necessary evil or even something normal.
The most important findings concerning trial observations conducted between July 2011 and July 2012 are:
• 51 per cent of sessions started with a delay and average delay was 15 minutes
• for the sessions delayed, 84 per cent of judges did not explain or apologize for the delay
• in 5 per cent of sessions observed the judge questioned the right of observers to stay in the court room and/or to take notes
• 39 per cent of parties appeared before the court without a professional legal representative
• in 11 per cent of sessions the attorney of at least one party was present in the court room before the session started, during the break and/or after it finished (it considered mostly prosecutors) with the doors to the courtroom shut
• in 1 per cent of sessions observers did not notice reasons for the sentence were given by the judge although it’s the judge’s duty to give them
• in 1 per cent of cases the judge did not inform the parties of the possibility to appeal although they had no attorneys or their attorneys were not present
Probably the most significant problem observed are the various restrictions as to the right of our observers to stay in the courtroom as public. Although our monitors were instructed to present themselves as “members of the public, unrelated to the case”, a significant number of them was denied access to the courtroom; often, no reason for such a decision was given by the judge, or the decision was communicated in such a manner, that the observers had a feeling they were being “thrown away”. In isolated cases we found out our monitors were denied access to trials which could not – and in fact were not – declared closed to the public. We also found out that some judges were afraid our observers could be presented as witnesses at a later stage of the trial (although the latter tried to make it clear it was not the case).
The most important findings concerning the infrastructure of court buildings conducted between July 2011 and July 2012 are:
• 21 per cent of court buildings lacked access for the disabled
• 15 per cent of court buildings lacked metal detector
• in 20 per cent of court buildings public toilets were either difficult to find or not open to the public
• 24 per cent of court buildings did not have a separate room for the public to read court records
The main problem with the functioning of court infrastructure was, again, various restrictions concerning citizens’ access to the court and the courtroom. In a number of courts, those entering the court buildings were questioned by the security or asked to present their ID – in some cases their data was put on record. In isolated cases security required them to present monitions or obtain permission from chief judge in order to access courtrooms. Sporadically, secretaries denied information about the case list for the day or informed the observers they needed permission to sit in the courtroom.
An important goal of the project of Citizen Court Monitoring is legal education of participants and the wider public. At present, many Polish citizens lack legal consciousness and feel disempowered in face of the court. Court Watch Poland Foundation tries to overcome this passive attitude and show citizens how to effectively control the judiciary, while preserving the principle of judicial independence. During the two years of the program over 2,000 people were introduced to the idea and methods of court monitoring. While training volunteers the Foundation’s staff emphasize citizens’ rights and duties in the court. Experience shows that participation in the program is an empowering experience for most of our volunteers.
Download a pdf file with the full Report in Polish (Summary and data description in English).