The objective of the “Citizen and Law” Program, launched in 2002 by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation, was to support the development of various forms of civil and legal counseling. It did so by providing support to non-governmental organizations which dispense free, expert legal information and advice and encouraging citizens to exercise their rights in the public sphere. “The initiative matched the mission of the Foundation both with regard to its substance and the method of its implementation, as the program supported the network of NGOs and volunteers involved in counseling and this way enhanced the civil society,” President Koźmiński said, noting at the same time that the program helped to start the public debate on legal aid accessibility and develop proposals of systemic solutions in this area.
Jacek Kucharczyk, President of the Institute of Public Affairs, that is the Program Manager, presented in his address the achievements of the program. In 2002-2014, grant competitions addressed to NGOs involved in legal and civil counseling were carried out as part of this initiative. In the seven rounds of the program, a total of 190 projects were co-financed under the open grant competitions, and 40 in re-granting run by Legal Clinics Foundation and the Union of Citizens’ Advice Bureaus. These projects made it possible to provide over 170,000 legal and civic consultations, open 222 new consultancy points, organize over 1,100 training courses and conferences, as well as publish 130 publications and other materials. The total amount of grants awarded by PAFF amounted to over PLN 6 million. “The role played by the “Citizen and Law” program as the legal and civil consulting incubator has petered out. It’s time that legal and civil counseling became the element of everyday life in Poland, and were accessible for every citizen looking for aid,” Jacek Kucharczyk summed up.
“I regard the struggle against social exclusion in the area of legal aid access and in the area of comprehensive civic education as one of the most important challenges. (…) I realize that legal counseling in Poland means hundreds of voluntary organizations extending legal aid to those who are in need,” wrote President of Poland Bronisław Komorowski in his letter addressed to the Gala participants and read by the Chief of the Chancellery of the President of Poland Jacek Michałowski. The President expressed his appreciation for NGOs giving legal aid on a pro bono basis and thanked everybody for their engagement in the “Citizen and Law” program.
President Bronisław Komorowski decorated the persons especially merited in legal and civil counseling. The cross of merit was awarded to: Witold Klaus, President of the Association for Legal Intervention; Ija Ostrowska, President of the Citizens Advice Bureau in Warsaw; Anna Melki of the OVUM Association, Agata Winiarska of the Institute of Public Affairs; and Joanna Kubiak of Association for Legal Intervention, posthumously. The medals were presented by Jacek Michałowski, Head of the Chancellery of the President of Poland and Cezary Grabarczyk, Minister of Justice.
Awards were also presented to organizations merited in free legal and civil counseling in Poland. The statuettes and diplomas, handed by Prof. Ewa Łętowska, Jerzy Koźmiński and Jacek Kucharczyk, were received by representatives of 15 organizations, such as ITAKA – Center for Missing People, the National Commission for Protection of Children Rights, and Gdynia local government, which was distinguished as a “Local Government – a Friend to Counseling”.
Prof. Andrzej Rzepliński, President of the Constitutional Tribunal, in his speech spoke among other things about the history of legal and civil counseling. He recalled that the Universal Education Society, KSS KOR, or the Commission for Intervention and Rule of Law at the NSZZ “Solidarność” used to be active in this area. “In the face of a difficult situation, it meant teaching people that they should have the courage to deal with difficult state which they face, and if they did not manage, there was always someone who would help them,” Prof Rzepliński said.
PAFF will continue to support activities leading to popularization of the “Citizen and Law” Program achievements. The www.obywateliprawo.pl portal which collects data on projects financed both through the grant competitions and carried out by the Expert Board and “Active Citizen Forum” continues to operate. The Counseling Organizations Platform, involved in advocacy regarding new EU funds designing still exists, and the counseling organizations environment is getting integrated. The organizations are offered training courses and debates with experts on the selected subjects.
The Gala was held under the honorary patronage of the Polish Ombudsman.
The program media patrons were Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, Lex.pl portal and Third Sector quarterly.