Dr Magdalena Niziołek

A long way home

Cases seeking restitution of real estate in Poland lost through post-war agricultural reforms can stretch out for years.

Magdalena Niziołek of the Dispute Resolution and Arbitration practice group at Wardyński & Partners describes the decade-long battle for return of a palace in Obory, not far from Warsaw.

The Agricultural Reform Decree issued on 6 September 1944 by the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN), a self-proclaimed provisional government, disrupted the lives of thousands of owners of landed estates. Their family properties were seized and ownership was taken by the state. Such was the case for a woman named Teresa P.-Ł., whose family owned a small but attractive and superbly maintained palace in Obory. The valuable palace and the surrounding gardens were given to the official writers’ union for use as a retreat for writing and recreation by prominent writers during the communist era.

Disappointed hopes

After 1989, under a new political system, former owners of estates hoped that the losses caused by nationalisation of their properties would be redressed. Unfortunately, promises to enact a reprivatisation law have never been fulfilled. In 2001 a law was adopted by the Parliament which experts regarded as the best attempt up to that time to address this issue, but it was vetoed by President Aleksander Kwaśniewski. The issue of compensation for loss of property under the People’s Republic of Poland has not been regulated to this day. Many former owners decided to attempt to regain their property (or monetary compensation) through the courts, but the judicial route is difficult and slow.

Teresa P.-Ł. has learned this the hard way. Judicial and administrative proceedings conducted on her behalf by lawyers from Wardyński & Partners from 1999 to the present day have so far not resulted in the return of her family estate. The reason is delay by the relevant authorities in considering the case, combined with radical changes in the positions of the courts and the Constitutional Tribunal concerning who (an administrative body or the court) has jurisdiction to rule on cases involving restitution of real estate seized under the Agricultural Reform Decree.

Changing view from the bench

The first ruling in the case was made in 2000 in an administrative proceeding, when the province governor of Mazovia ruled against restitution. An appeal to the administrative court followed, in which the administrative rulings were overturned.

Alongside the administrative proceedings, a proceeding was also pending before the common court. In 2006 the Warsaw Regional Court issued a ruling denying the petition by the former owner, holding that the administrative authorities had jurisdiction over the case. An appeal followed from this ruling, but the appeal was stayed until the administrative proceeding was resolved.

Meanwhile, there was another change in the jurisprudence, when the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that proceedings under the Agricultural Reform Decree should be conducted in their entirety as civil cases before the common courts. Shifting cases seeking restitution of properties seized under the Agricultural Reform Decree to the civil courts was expected to shorten the duration of the proceedings.

In the case of Teresa P.-Ł., the ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal resulted in a decision by the province governor of Mazovia in May 2010 discontinuing the proceeding commenced by the motion filed exactly 11 years before. Although the claimant is getting up in years, she hasn’t lost hope that her family home will be returned. That will be decided by the civil court.