Bleak House

Charles Dickens’s famous story has long since served as a salutary warning about the perils of litigation. And readers of these blogs will have noticed my own oft expressed view that litigation is the best way to resolve disputes – apart, that is, from all the others. It is therefore interesting to note that there will be major changes to the Polish Code of Civil Procedure in May 2012.

At present, special rules apply to commercial proceedings, defined as disputes between companies and businesses. In commercial disputes each party has to present its complete evidence at the outset of the proceedings and the judge is not obliged to take into account any evidence which is insufficient or which is delivered late. At first sight, and in a perfectly functioning system, such rules have much to commend them since they require parties to be properly organised before launching litigation and, by reducing the scope for tactical manoeuvres, should result in shorter cases and judgments being delivered more quickly (in under six months was the original intention) – all very business like.

It will come as no surprise that this is not how it turned out in practice. Commercial case are decided after much delay – there is little practical difference between commercial and other cases in terms of speed of judgment – because of the general inefficiency of the system. Often, individual hearing days are set months apart rather than blocking several consecutive days in the court timetable: in one case involving the dissolution of a company the court set three hearing dates over the course of a year and took eight months to obtain a witness statement from a witness in London; and in another simple case although judgment was delivered within two weeks, it took the court four months to send the judgment to the parties through the post.

As from May 2012 the changes to the procedure will in effect remove the separate category of commercial proceedings and it will lie within the discretion of the judge whether to apply stricter requirements such as ordering a party to provide a response to a claim or its evidence within particular deadline whether or not the case is a dispute between commercial entities. How this will affect the speed of cases is hard to predict especially without changing the way the dates of hearings are set. There will be on positive change; it will now be possible for a defendant to raise a counter claim within the proceedings started by the plaintiff. Under the old rules, while it was possible to raise such matters as a defence to the original claim, actually to pursue the counter claim required the issuing of a separate procedure. This did nothing to improve the speed or efficiency of commercial litigation.

It is too early to say whether Bleak House – in Poland at least – has been demolished or merely renovated.

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