Hogan Lovells Warsaw achieves important victory in long-running dispute concerning property confiscated in one of the most controversial communist sham trials
Warsaw, 12 April 2021 – A Hogan Lovells team in Warsaw led by Dr. Wojciech Marchwicki has secured a favorable ruling before the Warsaw Court of Appeals for Mr. Piotr Wawrzecki, the heir of Stanislaw Wawrzecki, who was sentenced to death in 1965, in one of the most controversial trials of the communist regime in Poland. The ongoing dispute concerns the return of assets which were illegally confiscated by the State Treasury.
The case is an aftermath of the historic Polish “Meat scandal” of the 1960s, when a special committee of the Polish Communist Party allegedly uncovered fraud relating to meat trade, involving alleged theft, falsified invoices and bribery. In fact, the “Meat scandal” was a communist propaganda campaign, in which the government tried to justify the failings of the central administration. At the time, the lack of regular food supply (specifically, meat supply) was causing serious disruption and significantly weakened the position of the Communist Party. The government was looking for a way to justify the inefficiency of agricultural production under the regime.
Mr. Piotr Wawrzecki's father, Stanislaw Wawrzecki, who was the director of the Municipal Meat Trading Company in Warsaw at that time, was accused of fraud and in 1965 he was sentenced to death without the right to appeal, which violated both his constitutional rights and due process standards. The death penalty was carried out before the deadline for challenging the sentence, the so-called “extraordinary revision”, had expired, and his and his family property was confiscated. Even for the standards of the communist regime in Poland, it was exceptional to execute the death penalty for alleged fraud, and to bypass the most fundamental rules of due process. The case is a typical example of a sham trial.
After restitution of the democracy in Poland and under the new Constitution, the Supreme Court annulled the 1965 judgment due to a gross violation of procedural rules. However, despite the annulment of the judgement, the State Treasury did not return the property confiscated from the family of Stanislaw Wawrzecki. Mr. Wawrzecki’s heirs have made several unsuccessful attempts to regain the confiscated property through both civil and criminal proceedings. The courts have dismissed the claims for formal reasons.
In 2014, Mr. Piotr Wawrzecki initiated so-called conciliatory proceedings, requesting the return of the property held now by the State Treasury without any legal justification. Finally, in 2015, he brought a case for the return of the confiscated property, or payment of equivalent of its market value. The legal and factual background to the case is very complex, raising questions concerning the impact of previous court decisions issued in unsuccessful proceedings on the possibility to pursue different claims (so-called res iudicata). The other issue is the unclear legal nature of the claim for return of the confiscated property and the rules of the statute of limitation that apply to this claim. The complexity of the case has already led the Warsaw Court of Appeals to annul the decisions of the Warsaw Regional Court twice.
The case was now subject to appellate review for the third time. The Warsaw Regional Court dismissed the claim in February 2020, indicating that the plaintiff's claim was time-barred and ruling that it was a tort claim. The court also found no grounds to conclude that due to the time-barred nature of the claims, the State Treasury had not abused the law.
In the March 2021 hearing, the Court of Appeal re-examined the plaintiff's appeal once again. On 9 April 2021 the Court of Appeal annulled the previous ruling and ordered the Regional Court to hear the case on the merits again. The Court of Appeals agreed with the arguments raised in the appeal and confirmed, inter alia, that the pursued claim is not a tort, as it resembles a claim for the return of unjust enrichment. In this situation, the general limitation period of ten years should apply. The State Treasury should not look for formal excuses to avoid the return of the confiscated property but should take actions to minimize the consequences and compensate the family.
Piotr Wawrzecki is represented on a pro bono basis by Dr. Wojciech Marchwicki from the Hogan Lovells Warsaw office and the case is conducted under the Precedent Cases Program of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Polish powerhouse of strategic litigation.