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 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 second report was issued in October 2012, and was 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.
The present, third, report is based on an even greater amount of data: almost 7,000 trial observations from over 450 volunteers and 132 courts throughout the country. Like in the previous years, 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 encouraging regular citizens, not lawyers or even law students, to visit 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 a necessary evil or even something normal.
The most important findings concerning trial observations conducted between July 2012 and July 2013 are:
- 45 per cent of sessions started with a delay
- for the sessions delayed, 78 per cent of judges did not explain or apologize for the delay
- in 6 per cent of sessions observed the judge questioned the right of observers to stay in the court room and/or to take notes
- in 11 per cent of sessions the prosecutor or 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 2 per cent of cases the judge did not offer the parties equal possibility to present their case
Like in the previous years, transparency and access for the public remain our focus. Our monitors are instructed to present themselves as “members of the public, unrelated to the case”, in order to avoid getting a different treatment than regular citizens. Over the past three years we have seen a decrease in those cases where monitors are being denied access to the courtroom for open sessions; overall, we can see that courts and court employees, as well as the judges, are getting used to the presence of public and/or our monitors. Nevertheless, our report documents many cases when access to the courtroom was restricted in many different ways – starting with court security, through denial of access to public information (e.g. case schedules), to thorough questioning by the judges.
The most important findings concerning the infrastructure of court buildings conducted between July 2011 and July 2012 are:
- 16 per cent of court buildings lacked access for the disabled
- 12 per cent of court buildings lacked metal detector
- in 29 per cent of court buildings finding a public toilet required going to the different floor or a different court building
- 20 per cent of court buildings did not have a separate room for the public to read court records
Various restrictions concerning citizens’ access to the court and the courtroom remain the chief problem with the functioning of court infrastructure was, again. 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.
This year, we have been able for the first time to document the impact of our two previous monitoring cycles. We have noticed significant improvement in regard to certain issues. For example, during the second cycle, only 46% of all court sessions monitored started on time. In the third cycle – 55% of them started on time. What is also worth noticing, is that the judges more often apologized for and/or explained reasons for any delay. Similarly, it was significantly less common for the prosecutors to enter the courtroom and stay inside with the judge while other participants stayed outside. The change is especially clear in those courts, which were monitored most intensively during those three years. These findings offer evidence citizen trial monitoring can be very efficient in reducing some of the negative practices within the system of justice.
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 three years of the program over 3,000 people were introduced to the idea and methods of court monitoring. While training volunteers the Foundation’s staff emphasizes citizens’ rights and duties in the court. Experience shows that participation in the program is an empowering experience for most of our volunteers.
The Foundation will keep monitoring courts in Poland in the years to come. We also plan to start a new projects aimed at improving the Polish court system. One of them, currently under way, hopes to implement the first community court in Poland.