If you don't speak Polish and you are a participant in court proceedings, you'll be assisted by an interpreter.
In criminal proceedings, whether you are a witness, a suspected person or you have been formally accused of a crime, you'll get a certified interpreter to assist you during any interrogation, interview or hearing in court. If there will be any important documents in Polish concerning you or your rights, they will be translated for you as well. You'll get the help of an interpreter as long as you don't speak Polish at all or your knowledge of the language is insufficient. If you speak it a little but don't feel comfortable in formal, court-related situations, you should always ask for an interpreter. Such assistance will be granted to you for free. An interpreter will also help you in communication with your legal counsel (if he'she doesn't speak your language) and will translate documents which you want to file with the court.
In civil procedure witnesses or a party to the proceedings who don't speak Polish (or speak it not good enough) will be examined by the court with the assistance of an interpreter. The judge may also decide that certain documents should be translated by a ceritfied translator and then order such translation. If you are a party to the proceedings and you want to submit documents in a language other than Polish, you should provide certified translations of such documents yourself. With regard to the costs of the interpreter's/translator's assistance, the general rule in civil proceedings apply: the person who has lost the case will bear the costs of the proceedings (icnluding the costs of translations) incurred by the winning party.
There are three kinds of common courts in Poland:
- Sąd Rejonowy (District Court) - the court of 1st instance where most cases are handled
- Sąd Okręgowy (Regional Court) - the court of 2nd instance for all the decisions of the District Courts that were appealed + Regional Courts act as courts of 1st instance for serious crimes and civil cases regarding sums in excess of PLN 75 000 (also for divorce cases)
- Sąd Apelacyjny (Appelate Court) - the court of 2nd instance for the decisions of the Regional Courts that were appealed
In Polish legal system you always have the right to appeal (once) from the decision of the court of 1st instance. The courts' of 2nd instance decisions are final and cannot be appealed further.
At the top of the judicial pyramid is the Supreme Court in Warsaw which handles cassation appeals from the decisions of the 2nd instance courts. Unfortunately cassation appeals are restricted to the most serious cases, so most cases don't qualify for it.
First things first: when you've been summoned to the court, you should always come on time. It's very likely that your case will start later than scheduled (usually because of the previous case lasting more than predicted), but if it does start on time, nobody will wait for you if you're running late.
When you've found your courtroom you'll be waiting outside of it together with other people involved in your case or just random people waiting for their cases to be called in the neighbouring courtrooms.
When the time comes, a court reporter (court clerk) will walk out of the courtroom and loudly call your case (they can also do it via speaker system). Usually they'll say something along the lines: "The case brought by Mr/Ms X against Mr/Ms Y" or "The case of Mr/Ms X for payment/divorce" or "The case of the accused Mr/Ms X". Then you enter your courtoom.
Upon walking in you'll see a a judge (or even 3 judges) sitting behind a bench (the biggest desk in the room) and two smaller desks put opposite each other in fron of the bench - you'll be sitting at one of them.
If it's a civil case and you're the plaintiff/claimant, you'll be sitting on the judge's right-hand side (which means that it'll be your left-hand side when facing the judge). If you're the defendant, you'll be sitting on the judge's right-hand side (the right-hand side from your perspective, when facing the judge).
In a criminal case, the prosecutor always sits on the judge's right-hand side, and the accused on the judge's left-hand side.
When you've walked in, you should sit by your desk and wait for the judge to check the attendance (do a roll-call). When the judge says your name you should stand up (every time the judge talks to you, you should be standing up, the same applies to when you're saying something to the judge). You always address the judge as "Your Honour".
After the roll-call, the judge asks each party about their position on the matter and very often about the possibility of reaching an agreement. If no agreement can be made, the judge will start hearing the witnesses, who enter the courtroom separately to give their testimonies. After the judge has asked a witness all his/her questions, each party can start cross-examination of a witness (ask the witness whatever is left to ask)
The rule of thumb is: you don't need to be represented by a professional. Hiring an advocate/legal advisor is totally up to you. If you feel that you don't need it, you can act in court on your own and that's fine too. Conversely, if you think you need legal aid, you have to find a lawyer yourself (and act quick), the court will not help you with it.
It's also possible that you'd like to be represented by a professional lawyer but can't afford to hire one - in such a case you can apply for a court-appointed lawyer, who will represent you in court for free. In order to do that, you have to fill out an application and submit it with the court (you can do it before your case starts or when it's already started). In the application you'll have to describe your family situation, your income and expenses. If the court comes to the conclusion that you really can't afford a lawyer, you'll be assigned one, who will represent you throughout the whole case. It's important to remember, however, that if you lose the case, the court may charge you your lawyer's fees (the exact amounts are established in the Regulation of the Minister of Justice of 22nd October 2015 regulating the fees for advocate's activities).
This is actually one of the most common question I get. Polish lawyers who qualified as advocates, legal advisors, judges or prosecutors all have have to wear black robes (gowns) while in court and the only distinction revealing their profession is the colour of a jabot, which is a piece of material around the collar.
Advocates wear robes with a green jabot and green piping of the collar and the sleeves.
Legal advisors wear robes with a blue jabot and piping.
Judges wear robes with a purple jabot and purple piping.
Prosecutors wear robes with a red jabot and red piping.
Polish lawyers don't wear wigs! :)