Citizens in the maze of law. How not to get lost?
> Michał Syska
For a majority of citizens, the world of legal regulations is far more complicated and hostile than the labyrinthine corridors of the former Riot Police barracks in Księcia Witolda Street in Wrocław, where the 13th edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review was held.
According to a survey conducted by TNS OBOP in 2009, 30% of Poles do not know what a lawsuit is while 82% are ignorant of the fact that legal proceedings in Poland are two-instance. The respondents also had trouble telling the difference between a legal advisor and an advocate, and civil law and criminal law.
According to another survey commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, most Polish citizens are unable to correctly name the institutions of the judiciary. Only a quarter of them know how the judiciary operates. This common ignorance of citizens’ rights and duties in courts and prosecutors’ offices leads to a negative perception of courts, with 48% of respondents believing that they are not accessible enough to ordinary people.
Citizens’ inadequate awareness of legal matters results in their unwillingness to defend their rights and lack of knowledge about how to protect their interests. The negative social consequences of this state of affairs were raised during the debate Citizens in the maze of law. How not to get lost? by Professor Monika Płatek, a lawyer who co-founded the Polish Association for Legal Education (PALE), an organisation whose main aim is to raise awareness and foster legal culture in the socjety.
The establishment of the PALE in 1994 was inspired by Prof. Płatek’s personal experience, namely the discovery of the idea of street law while she was on a scholarship in the USA. The street law approach began in the 1970s, when a group of Georgetown University students supervised by their lecturers started to give practical law lessons to high school students and inmates. During the following decade, the idea was adopted by other American universities and spread to many countries in the world, from the Republic of South Africa to Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe. In Poland, it was Prof. Płatek who first introduced it. The PALE’s motto is “You have the right to know your rights.” In order to propagate this idea, lawyers first need to be taught how to communicate with ordinary citizens using an understandable language.
During the discussion, Prof. Płatek raised the problem of low level of trust in the society as a barrier to good relations between the citizens and state or self-government institutions. As numerous surveys confirm it, a significant proportion of Poles do not believe that all people are equal before the law. Public offices are not trusted either. In an interview for Gazeta Prawna, Prof. Płatek described the current state of affairs in the following way: “We cannot accept a situation in which the interpretation of the law depends on individual officials, municipalities or offices, which happens especially in the tax law. This situation undermines the citizens’ trust in the state and triggers their frustration.” 11 source: http://prawo. gazetaprawna.pl/ artykuly/5625,sondaz_nie_ wszyscy_polacy_sa_rowni_ wobec_prawa.html ↩︎ She repeated this thought during the debate at SURVIVAL, adding that the level of trust in institutions depends on a country’s economic model. Poland seems to be closer to the neoliberal rather than the Nordic model, in which the level of mutual trust is markedly higher and where officials perform a servient role for the citizens. The low level of trust in Poland is also the result of the complicated history of relations between the Polish society and state institutions. At various stages of our history (the period of the Partitions of Poland or the People’s Republic of Poland), circumventing the law was perceived almost as a patriotic act. This historical heritage influences the current state of legal culture, too.
Another participant in the debate, Prof. Leszek Koczanowicz of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Wrocław, also expressed his reservations about Poland’s legal regulations. As a philosopher, he pondered the possibility of the existence of “a world without law.” “If it is impossible, we must think how it is possible for the law to function in a world that is unjust in so many respects and full of self-contradictions that cannot be overcome. We should think whether the law, or lawyers, wouldn’t be better off without some legal myths, such as equal rights. Another issue is whether legal regulations should apply to all areas of life, whether the law shouldn’t withdraw from certain spheres that could be regulated by the rules of the community,” Prof. Koczanowicz said.
A question that arises in the context of Prof. Koczanowicz’s statement is whether in an age of technological advancement, globalisation and other processes that lead to the emergence of previously unregulated social relations it is possible and/or desirable to leave these spheres of life as if beyond the scope of law. Prof. Płatek said that the advancement of civilisation does need regulation, e.g. to protect the rights of individuals. She emphasised, however, that in many cases Polish lawmakers pass new rules whose only purpose is to mask the inability of the authorities to solve real social problems.
Culture as a sphere of searching for regulations concerning the new carriers of art was indicated by music critic Monika Pasiecznik, the last of the discussants. By referring to performances by German composer Johannes Kreidler, she highlighted the difficulties connected with defining and protecting copyrights, which makes any regulation of these matters in art highly problematic. As part of his action Product Placement, Kreidler submitted a 33-second piece comprising 70,200 samples of other artists’ work to the GEMA, a German organisation responsible for regulating copyrights. 22 source: https:// pasiecznik.wordpress. com/2014/10/14/ kreidler-2/ ↩︎ He had to use a lorry to deliver all the forms necessary to register the piece. His happening illustrates the problem of copyrights in the age of the digital revolution.
Many absurd results of legal regulations were quoted by members of the audience (e.g. safety regulations of river canals, which led to the construction of a high wall next to a promenade along the Oder in Wrocław). Prof. Płatek emphasised that it is always worth checking whose economic interests certain regulations serve. During the discussion there were also many appeals to the lawmakers to make better law. Meanwhile, making the laws that govern our everyday life is the domain of not only lawyers. And it should not be only theirs. As Prof. Płatek said several years ago in her interview for Gazeta Prawna, “I wouldn’t like to be involved in drafting laws concerning the parametres of bridge-building because I know nothing about it. I’m afraid that if I were to stand under such a bridge as the first cars were about to cross, I would die because the bridge would collapse.” 33 source: http://prawo. gazetaprawna.pl/ artykuly/5625,sondaz_nie_ wszyscy_polacy_sa_rowni_ wobec_prawa.html ↩︎ She made a similar point during the debate. Meanwhile, the undersigned (a lawyer by education), who had the honour to moderate the discussion, stressed that as citizens we can all influence the law and the state of legal culture. “The law is too serious a matter to be left to the lawyers,” I concluded.