Parrots in a courtroom

Last week I paid a flying visit to Warsaw. After a lovely catch-up session, a good friend of mine, who is a lawyer, took me to a nearby district court. After four and a half years of working as a Polish court interpreter in the UK, it was hilarious to see myself being so ridiculously excited about visiting a court. Without a hitch, I quickly jumped into the researcher’s role and opened myself to the unknown in a much known culture.

I didn’t have to wait long for something to prompt some critical thinking. At the entrance it struck me that there was a separate door for lawyers and another one for other visitors. Well, ever since I listened to John Moore’s presentation[1] on the inherited and intrinsic unequal nature of the criminal justice system I have lowered my expectations of the criminal justice systems, but here inequality literally met me at the door.

I began digging into the reasons behind this privileged entrance arrangements for Polish lawyers. It emerged that these adjustments are for the protection of legal professionals in Poland, in case of dealing with unpredictable and violent criminal justice users (who by the way, in the UK, are called clients and in Poland petenci). The ‘double door standards’ also reminded me of my doctoral fieldwork and participants’ understandings of the role of lawyers in the Polish justice system. In a few words, in my participants’ narratives Polish lawyers signified a necessary evil, a group of intermediaries competent in tactical manoeuvres, who know perfectly how to navigate litigants, and prevaricate and search for loopholes in the law to win cases. No wonder lawyers in Poland are commonly referred to as – ‘parrots’ – to accentuate their role of blindly repeating their clients’ words.

The image of lawyers as ‘heartless sharks’ is not new; it has long been argued by Friedman (1989). However, everything is a matter of degree and requires a context. In the Polish case the legacy of lawyers’ impact on court proceedings goes back to the time of socialism. Jacek Kurczewski (2007) noticed that under socialism lawyers were widely known, respected and trusted by the public. The names Aniela Steinsbergowa, Jan Olszewski or Kazimierz Szczuka call to mind the fact that lawyers performed an overarching mission of protection from the political oppression at the time. Then, during the post-1989 changes they also played a key role in introducing and leading new initiatives that aimed at turning the socialist state into a democracy with a free market. However, the perception of lawyers changed at some point during the transformation period. After 1989 many lawyers became influenced by the ‘American’ style of practising law and were driven by three dominant objectives: efficiency, ruthlessness and financial gain [2]. Well, Jeremy Bentham once said that lawyers are the only persons in whom ignorance of the law is not punished.

Whether the confidence in lawyers in Poland still stems from their positive image under socialism or the current demand for ruthless legal representation doesn’t really matter. The ‘double door standards’ is only part of a more nuanced story; the exceptionality of the profession is acknowledged on multiple fronts.

For example, it is now no longer a surprise (and to some extent it is a disappointment) for me to hear that some people in Poland would still prefer to be accompanied by lawyers if they are to participate in a less formal justice encounter, such as victim offender mediation. Although mediation provides a chance to deal with crime outside the rigid and formal courtroom proceedings (without the presence of lawyers), from time to time people do come to mediation with their legal representatives. Based on my study findings it appears that, due to the unknown nature and fear of mediation informality, the presence of lawyers comes across as a safeguard. Even the mediators who took part in my research admitted that a legal background should be mandatory for becoming a mediator. Moreover, my participants’ confidence in legal representation in/out of the courtroom corroborates other research findings that people might not necessarily see court proceedings as something to avoid and victim offender mediation as overwhelmingly beneficial (see Tränkle, 2007).

The ‘separate entrance’ experience also opens the door to look into the specificity of the Polish legal culture in general. Maria Łoś (1988) observed that, due to the socialist past, ‘law and order’ has a different context in Poland. She argued that the law lost its authority and respect for Polish citizens because their legal and moral consciousness was for a long time exposed to dual meanings of legal standards. In consequence, the disregard for law and order among Polish people has made the legal culture ambivalent and saturated with the notion of ‘the ordinary person’s right’ – an overall feeling that the law is good when it is on my side, and bad when others benefit from it (see Kurczewski, 2007). Despite the post-1989 expectations that this might change, such low confidence in the law and legal institutions has remained at the same level since the early days of socialism. It may be that people’s disappointment with the Polish criminal justice system only makes their confidence in legal representation stronger, and somehow necessary.

 

[1] Moore, J. (2016) Built For Inequality In A Diverse World:A Brief History Of Criminal Justice, British Society of Criminology Conference, Nottingham.

[2] Interview with Joanna Agacka-Indecka, Polish lawyer in Polityka – nr 18 (2703), date of publication 2009-05-02; p. 42-46.

References:

Friedman, L. (1989) Law, Lawyers, and Popular Culture. The Yale Law Journal, 8(98), 1579-1606.

Kurczewski, J. (2009) Prawem i lewem. Kultura prawna społeczeństwa polskiego po komunizmie [Either Rightly or Like a Crook: Legal Culture of Polish Society after Communism]. Sociological Studies, 2(185), 33-60.

Łoś, M. (1988) Communist ideology, law and crime. A comparative view of the USSR and Poland. London: The MacMillan Press.

Tränkle, S. (2007) In the shadow of penal law: Victim-offender mediation in Germany and France. Punishment & Society, 9(4), 395-415.

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