History and activity of the legal clinics in Poland

The first legal clinic in Poland began its functioning in October 1997 at the Faculty of Law at Jagiellonian University, with the support of the Ford Foundation and following a conference on clinical legal education supported by the U.S. Embassy and other donors. Shortly afterwards, in 1998 legal clinics courses were introduced in the study program at Warsaw University, also with the support of the Ford Foundation.

The European Law Students Association (ELSA) played a great role in creation and development of the program. In May 1998 in Szczecin ELSA organized a conference: "Legal education reform. Development of the legal clinics idea". It was a good forum for discussion about clinical education in Poland, especially because it was combined with a National Congress of Polish Lawyers Union (Zrzeszenie Prawników Polskich) and National Congress of Law Faculty Deans. The conference in Szczecin resulted in a fast development of the clinical idea throughout the country. Within few years there has been 12 legal clinics established in Poland: Kraków, Warsaw, Białystok, Toruń, Poznań, Lublin, Rzeszów, Szczecin, Wrocław, Katowice, ŁódŸ and Gdańsk.

In December 2001 three representatives of Polish university based legal clinics were invited to go for a study visit to South Africa, where a very similar model of clinical education has been developed since the 1970-ties. Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) at Columbia University in New York provided advice, technical support and organized the study tour. As a result of this, Polish legal clinics adopted a long term strategy and decided to set up the Legal Clinics Foundation.

There has been an essential growth of need for legal advice provided by the clinics and the idea is very popular among the students and faculty members. Clinical courses have been included into the education program at the law faculties and are treated as so called "specialization courses".

At present there are 25 legal clinics in Poland. Each year almost 2000 students, under supervision of over 350 law professors is dealing with around 12.000 cases. Clinic work is divided into sections supervised by the faculty teachers, i.e. sections of civil law, administrative law, labor law, criminal law, refugee law, and women rights. In addition students work with prisoners. Work of the students includes: written opinions, written statements, applications, appeals, claims, complaints and interventions.

An introduction to the clinical work includes lectures and seminars dedicated to the following matters: legal ethics, psychology of the communication with clients. The students also meet with the practitioners who explain all the problems of working with people seeking access to justice. After the introductory training the students are divided into different sections supervised by at least one faculty teacher.

Clients coming to the clinics are given a special form to fill in, and then the secretary assigns the case to relevant section or individual student (or more often couple of students). After the preliminary selection the student prepares the meeting with client based on the copies of documents and the problem's description included in the form. The meeting is to settle the facts of the case and analyze the problem. The supervisors or patrons are usually present during the first meeting with the client, and then the students arrange meetings themselves. The most important task is to prepare a particular solution and introduce it to the supervisor. The supervisor corrects it and gives advice until the final solution is completed. This is the moment when the student meets with the client and introduces a written proposal of the solution. Usually the procedure ends here but sometimes the case needs to be filed to the court. Legal clinics cooperate with legal practitioners who, on behalf of the clinic, run the case to the end.