„Judges saying: you’re going to take that slammer away from me!”, „To me! Pick it up! Bring me the file!” „It’s a work culture of pick up, pass, sweep up and God forbid, keep your head down”, „Bureaucracy under the sign of 12 tables, why should anyone do that?”, „Pathology, pathology, that’s all I have to say”. This is what the employees of the justice system said about their work. I joined them in the Red Town in front of Zbigniew Ziobro’s ministry. The tent town has been standing there for 120 days, now, in the freezing cold, too.

I enter one of the red tents. They welcome me with tea and coffee, in good spirits. Not only me, as passers-by also join us. Who are they? They are members of the trade union that has been occupying a patch of grass on Plac na Rozdrożu since 30 September 2021. This is one of the longest protests in the history of the Polish judiciary.

They work in the judiciary as senior court secretaries, heads of divisions, enforcement or civil divisions, chief clerical specialists. They represent all groups working in the judiciary.

What are they fighting for? 

Our demands are simple, they say.

It is, among other things, about simplifying procedures and reducing the bureaucracy with which Polish courts are overloaded.

– We have more than a dozen IT programmes for exchanging and archiving all kinds of information, serving various departments of the judiciary and jurisprudence. Currenda, OrCom, SLPS, NOE-SAD, PESEL-SAD, Portal Informacyjny, Portal Orzeczeń, Sędzia, Kurator3, ReCourt, ZSRK, MKS… you could probably find a few more – list the participants of the protest.

After a while they add that there were some more during the pandemic. Programmes for recording hearings, conducting remote hearings (SCOPIA programme, JITSI) – all necessary for operating parts of the justice system under conditions of remote or shift work.

– If there are so many of these programmes, you get lost in it. What is someone supposed to do in the first month of work? He or she concentrates mainly on putting it all together somehow. God and truth, the whole thing works only thanks to people. What if the programme breaks down? What if some information doesn’t arrive? Suddenly you have to do everything manually and rewrite, catalogue and this is done by people. We do. It’s not hard to see how this affects the quality of the whole system.

The operation of programmes is essential for court cases, for example, the system of random allocation of cases to judges.

– The truth is that if something goes wrong, then any judge, or anyone above us, looks at us. That it is our fault. Because we have some secret power over these programs. And the truth is that they are often similarly incomprehensible to us as they are to others.

The pandemic „art” of management

On top of that, there are more and more responsibilities. It is not only the employees of the Social Insurance Institution or the National Tax Administration who have been made responsible by the pandemic and the new forms of management.

– Suddenly, many things have changed. There was considerable chaos. Apart from the new programmes, the Ministry also wanted to cover up the falling number of cases in the courts. What’s more, orders on applications for an enforcement clause of a final judgement are now registered as new cases for proceedings, which artificially increases the number of cases submitted to the court, putting an additional burden on the staff.

But there are even more absurdities. The divorce procedure was recently extended by law. The aim is presumably to reduce the number of divorces. Couples are supposed to go to mandatory mediation. Now they wait a year for the first divorce hearing. What if there are more conditions?

– And who do people complain to afterwards? Who do you think? To us, of course. Cases drag on and there are no dates for further hearings. They come to the courts and shout at us, not at the people from the Ministry or the judges. And what can we do? Our hands are tied.

One of my interlocutors has worked in the justice system for over 45 years. She recalls that once a case was registered in one day. Today it sometimes takes more than 2-4 days. And yet it is often the case that those who work are pressed for time.

A pitcher carries water until its ears fall off

But programmes and general administrative chaos are not everything. The judiciary is simply short of manpower. Often there is no one to do the work, or rather it is done by those who barely have the strength and time to do it anymore.

– The main problem is the lack of people. More and more responsibilities fall on an alarmingly small number of people. From carrying and lifting files, I am talking about trolleys often weighing more than 20 kilograms, to dealing with a mass of administrative work.

On top of this, often a new employee who is confronted with the prevailing work culture simply leaves.

– People do not want to work for these salaries, which are also eaten up by inflation, in such conditions and with such a large number of duties. After all, it’s not just about the quantity, but also about the quality. After all, every mistake we make may contribute to some irreversible error. Someone else’s tragedy.

These wages, that is how much?

– To understand our situation, we need to go back to 2009-2016, when the PO-PSL government, due to the crisis, „temporarily” froze our salaries. In 2016 we got dizzying increases of between PLN 20 and PLN 40 gross. In 2018, the employees said enough and also went out for „court breakfasts”, until finally in December 2018 they took care of their health en masse, which resulted in the paralysis of the judiciary across the country. Our trade union started collective dispute procedures in most courts, there were demonstrations and actions in front of the Ministry of Justice. This struggle led to a 1,000 PLN gross increase in 2019. But it should be noted that for 10 years there were no increases of any kind for court employees. So the funds won in 2019 have only begun to backfill the previous gigantic neglect in this regard.

The current salaries in court for support positions (i.e. the vast majority of employees), according to the regulation, start from below the lowest national level, i.e. PLN 2,600 gross (sic!) to PLN 8,400 gross. There are no ministerial guidelines as to which employees, in which positions and with what length of service are supposed to receive salaries close to the higher end of the range. This results in incredible inequalities in remuneration in different parts of the country, but also within one appellation or even within one workplace. Most employees earn a salary closer to the lower end of the pay scale, i.e. the national minimum. Also the promotion itself does not automatically result in a pay rise. Thus, if someone obtains the title of senior secretary or senior assistant by virtue of their experience, they only get a longer inscription on a stamp and more duties. This is not followed by a pay rise, because there is no money for it.

Hence the demand for a 12 per cent pay rise and linking it to the national average. The people of the Red Township argue: in monetary terms, it is not that much.

– In my case, it would be less than 450 zloty per hand – a participant of the protest tells me.

The protests erupted at the moment when the government, in the course of processing the budget act, announced freezing salaries in the public sector. Today (Thursday 27 January), the Sejm votes on whether to accept or reject the Senate’s amendment to the budget. Amendment No. 4 provides for an increase in the budget for salaries of employees of courts and prosecutor’s offices by 390 million PLN. Since the weekend, employees of courts and prosecutor’s offices have been sending emails, making phone calls and visiting MPs in their offices to convince them not to reject the amendment.

– In future, however, we would like our salaries to be linked to the national average or to the salaries of judges, so that they are indexed every year. At the moment, we have to keep asking for this. This is not a normal situation. We want to work, not protest. We want to address the concerns of our fellow citizens. We want new people to come to work at the court, and we want those who are already working here not to leave. The current staff shortages and constant rotation of employees make this work impossible.

Sejm voted to reject the amendment. No extra money for court officials. The fight goes on.

The lower class

– In front of the judges we often feel like people of an inferior class. Fetch, pass, sweep! I once heard announcements like: To me! Pick it up! That’s no way to work.

My interlocutors have worked in courts for long. Most of them for more than a decade. They agree: this situation is not new.

– There has almost always been bullying in the judiciary. The new issue is its scale. And this is due to the situation of the judiciary. Or rather its condition.

From their perspective, the issue is quite simple. If there is such pressure around the whole structure of the judiciary, from the media, to politicians, not to mention stakeholders who are unhappy with how long cases are taking, it cannot be normal.

– If the whole structure is inefficient, if people are often working beyond their means, it is no wonder that they pick on each other. The excessive workload of judges translates into a workload for departmental staff. Another thing: if there is a power relationship, people abuse it. A judge once said to me directly: you prepare the draft judgement, and I’ll go to lunch. Despite the fact that it is not my duty!

The question of the pandemic also comes into this context.

– I once got a call that I was to bring a lighter to the judge on the upper floor. Because he is afraid to come down to us, because of the virus.

But even if there were no viruses, simple laziness does its job.

– Once I’m sitting in my room and I hear, thump, thump, thump. Heels. And again, clack, clack, clack. Several times. I guessed it was my friend from the next room. I go to her and see that she is crying. The judge calls her every now and then telling her what to bring, what documents. So as the head of the secretariat I go to the judge and ask, „Do you know that we have some work standards here! They should go from top to bottom, not the other way around!”. After this situation everything changed. The next day the judge brought flowers. The work culture was different from then on. 

According to the staff, it is sometimes not simply a matter of bullying, but often the general attitude of the judges towards the secretarial staff.

– They often behave inappropriately, any setbacks and humours are carried over to work. In my court there is a judge who can come in and drop half the files on the floor in the morning. And who picks it up? What do you think? The first person who comes across it in her office!

But, I hear, it is not that bad everywhere. It is a human issue. As is the case with people, it varies.

– It is not that every judge is bad by nature. They are people too. They have pressures, they have responsibilities. But often they simply apply a philosophy of pushing down. And then this practice trickles down to other staff, and so on endlessly.

– In our outpost, words like wanker, fatso and others fly. Just use your imagination. We have to keep a low profile. People have families, loans and children. What are they supposed to do? Stand up for themselves?

It used to be something to be proud of

So what if the justice system is made of these people? The Ministry does not see it, there is no dialogue. Zbigniew Ziobro didn’t talk to anyone from the KNSZZ AD REM, his representatives didn’t even come to the red town. For several months. Since the beginning of the longest protest in the history of the judiciary.

– When I went to work at the court a dozen or more years ago, I was proud of it. Such an important institution, such a duty, such prestige. And now? I am often ashamed to admit where I work. The perception of the justice system is negative.

Despite such words, however, morale among the protesters is high. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of entries of support in the book of support, from random people who come to support those camping in front of the Ministry of Justice. Finally, employees of the Social Insurance Institution and the National Tax Administration are also preparing to fight.

– Even if the red township rolls up, what we represent here will not die!


All the heroes of the report, court workers from Warsaw, Szczecin, Koszalin and other cities, have been anonymised at their own request.


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