The Case of Maria Hutten-Czapska and Her Villa
How long does it take to get justice in Poland? If you are a property owner fighting the Polish state, it seems like forever. A French citizen of Polish origin, Countess Hutten-Czapska, although titles do not give you any favors in Poland nowadays, has been on a warpath against the Polish state since 1989, though without any success. Nevertheless the countess, now in her seventies, is still fighting.
At present, after fifteen long years of a hopeless struggle, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, is handling her case. Why the European, rather than the Polish Court? It seems the countess lost her inherent faith in the Polish legal system. Justice is one thing, the law another, and it seems at times they seldom meet.
What is it all about? Putting it simply the case is about the right of deciding over your own property, which is one of the basic human rights. If you own a house you should be at least able to decide who lives in it and how much rent they pay, states the countess. Well, the Polish state has been of a different opinion until quite recently, although, the state's interference with the private ownership dating since 1944, constitutes a clear breech of the article 1 of the Convention of Human Rights. This declares (regarding protection of property) that:
"Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law."
The fact is that, following the creation of the socialist state, most properties were nationalized, and those that weren't, were submitted to the state administration that not only decided who would live in your house but also the rent he would pay.
Since the socialistic state paid only extremely meager salaries to its employees, it was in the state's interest to keep rents down, as to not cause popular unrest. For this reason for almost fifty years the rents had been kept far below the cost of the maintenance; any profit, an ugly word under the regime, was totally unheard of.
As we all know, the socialist Polish state created after the Second World War by the Soviet union fell apart in 1989. A new republic was created based on market economy, in most sectors, except the rental property market. Undeterred, the state continued to pursue the old politics of the past. The state still continued to regulate the rent, thus protecting the "weak," that is the tenant, against the "capitalistic" owners. Unfortunately, the landlords are still envisioned as money hungry, ruthless thugs, while the tenants are the poor angels.
But the truth is never that simple. There are, of course, bad landlords waiting only to increase rents, but there are also tenants that, thanks to the state's protection, have not been paying any rent whatsoever for years and who thanks to the protection of the Polish law cannot be evicted. And we are not talking of some extreme cases here, but about 20% of tenants currently living free of charge are in other people's house.
The countess is but one of those numerous landlords complaining to the European court. Thus, her case has been chosen as a "pilot" case, which means that its judgment will apply to all the other cases similar cases within the EU. As it is obvious, it is an important case, which can mean billions in damages for the Polish state.
Let's have a closer look at the case, to understand what the whole uproar is about. The countess property is a villa once built and owned by her parents in 1936. After the war the council started to assign the flats in the house as it pleased. Although, the parents of Mrs Czapska were temporally given the house back, soon they were ordered for good from their property and the house remained, until 1990, when it was returned to its righteous owner, under the council administration.
In the returned villa, the countess planned to establish a charitable foundation, alas, without success. The Polish courts refused the landlord's appeal for the tenants to be removed, as well as allowing the owner to charge the market rates for rent. An application for compensation for lost income and the changes made to the house under the council rule was also denied.
After having her case in the Polish courts rejected for years, the countess had enough and took her case to Strasbourg after several years wait. They took up her case in 2005. The countess won the case, but wait, don't declare "happy ending" yet.
Although the court agreed that the Polish state was at fault, no compensation was awarded (Mrs Czapska asked for around 140,000 euro). Instead the Polish state and the countess had to negotiate the compensation on their own.
As could be expected, the Polish state lodged an immediate appeal and the case was judged again in January this year, although the new judgment has not as yet been made public. Believe me that every single owner of a private property in Poland holds his or her breath in anticipation.
Where it will end is anyone's guess and soon enough we will know. Whatever will be decided, the Polish rental market is in terrible shape and it will take many years to alleviate the problem. Unless the tenants contribute funds in form of reasonable rents, the Polish rental market is heading for a catastrophe. On the other hand, making the state pay enormous damages will further endanger the Polish state's economy and will certainly not help the state's investments in other areas. All one can do is wait and see what the judgment will be. Whatever the outcome, its consequences will be monumental. It's a real thriller.