Polish Private Law – An Overall Perspective

Mateusz Grochowski
Ph.D., assistant professor in the Institute of Legal Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and in the Institute of Justice, assistant in the Civil Chamber of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Poland, holder of scholarships of the Foundation for Polish Science and of the National Science Centre, previously visiting scholar at the Università degli Studi di Trento.

1. The domain of private law

As in other contemporary legal systems, the concept of “private law” in Poland covers several classical domains. The fundament and core of it are four areas, distinguished as books of the Polish Civil Code (the “CC”): the general part, property law, the law of obligations and inheritance law. Their array corresponds with analogous notions in other legal systems adopting a pandectistic approach towards structuring legal matter. The undoubted components of private law include also family law, the law of commercial companies and private international law – contemporarily enclosed in separate codes (the first two) or other statutes (the latter). Due to its dominant standpoint, private law also includes a part of labour law, dealing with contractual aspects of labour relations (also included in a separate act – the Labour Code). A peculiar part of private law also constitute intertemporal rules (not ordered in a particular general act, however – in terms of their crucial principles – derived from the introductory act to the CC).

To put things in a nutshell, Polish private law, in its current shape, does not alter significantly from the other European legal orders. Despite some rather technical peculiarities (resulting in part from the patchwork nature of Polish private law legislations – cf. the following chapter), it shares the common axiology and approach towards overriding questions. Sharing the common EU legislative patterns and assumptions, it also remains integrated directly with concepts and tendencies occurring at Union level.

2. Relevant legal acts

The crucial elements of Polish private law regulation are contained in the Civil Code of 23 April 1964 (Kodeks cywilny, Dz.U. 1964, vol. 16, item 93), in force since 1 January 1965. The Code comprises four books, divided upon the pandectistic tradition: general part, property law, the law of obligations and inheritance law. As with other codes in the tradition of private law, it provides a general and broad normative framework for most important legal occurrences in the field of dealings between individuals.

An analogous role in the sphere of family law is played by the Family and Guardianship Code of 25 February 1964 (Kodeks rodzinny i opiekuńczy, Dz.U. 1964, vol. 16, item 93), in force since 1 January 1965. Further to a decision taken during the codification works, family and guardianship regulations have been included in a code formally separate from the CC, yet tightly bound with it (as the latter provides the overall principles and rules applicable to the former).

Both codes dealing with substantive issues are accompanied by (enacted almost in parallel) the Code of Civil Procedure of 17 November 1964 (Kodeks postępowania cywilnego, Dz.U. 2014, item 101 – consolidated text), in force since 1 January 1965 (cf. CIVL PROCEDURE).

In addition the law of commercial entities has been codified separately in the Code of Commercial Companies of 15 September 2000 (Kodeks spółek handlowych, Dz.U. 2000, vol. 94, item 1037), in force since 1 January 2001 (cf. COMPANY LAW).

Similar to other European systems, Poland regulates the conflict of laws issues separately, currently in the Act on Private International Law of 4 February 2011 (ustawa Prawo prywatne międzynarodowe Dz.U. 2011, vol. 80, item 432), in force predominantly since 16 May 2011 (cf. CONFLICT OF LAWS).

3. Development of private law in Poland

The history of Polish private law regulations closely reflects the vicissitudes of the history of Poland throughout the past two centuries. Until the last decade of the 18th century, in the area of then Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth there were several particular private law acts in force, in most cases not constituting a structured or comprehensive system. Despite some advanced drafting works in the 18th century, the entire private law was not finally codified, only in the area of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 16th century there were three codes-of-a-kind (the “Statutes of Lithuania”).


Sejm of the Republic of Poland (Kpalion, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

From the final partition of the Polish territory in 1795 until 1918, the private law of Poland was under the predominant influence of the legal systems of the three countries ruling therein: the Russian and Austrian Empires and Prussia. What is more, during the Napoleonic era, on part of the Polish land (forming the Duchy of Warsaw) the Napoleonic Code was introduced, amended or supplemented with several subsequent legal acts.

As a result, after regaining independence at the end of the First World War, in the area of Poland there were four main systems of private law in force: the law of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the law of the German Empire, the law of the Russian Empire (based to the great extent upon the French regulation) and the amended Napoleonic Code. Part of the southern territory was also subordinated to Hungarian law, soon replaced by regulations of Austrian origin. Such a state of affairs required ordering and unification – undertaken gradually during the interwar years. The milestones of these endeavours was enacting the Code of Obligations of 27 October 1933  (Kodeks zobowiązań, Dz.U. 1934, vol. 82, item 598) and the Commercial Code of  27 June 1934 (Kodeks handlowy, Dz.U. 1934, vol. 57, item 502) – both in force since 1 July 1934. Both regulations were mainly based upon a modern legislative approach, combining elements taken from the Austrian, French, German and Swiss legal systems.

Mateusz Kudła

The Sejm Building (Mateusz Kudła, , CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

At the same time, the civil procedure law was also unified in the Code of Civil Procedure of 29 November 1930 (Kodeks postępowania cywilnego, Dz.U. ) and the Law on the Court’s Executional Proceedings of 27 October 1932 (Prawo o sądowem postępowaniu egzekucyjnem, Dz.U. 1950, vol. 43, item 394 – consolidated text), joined together as the Code of Civil Procedure, in force since 1 January 1933.

After the Second World War when Poland was dragged into the Soviet orbit, the private law experienced a profound axiological change. The traditional principles, based upon the freedom of activity and parity, were replaced by the concepts and constructions corresponding with a centralised economic scheme, oriented towards state ownership and a marginal role of self-sufficient private business dealings. The result in question was reached mainly through particular legal acts, amendments and a change in the judiciary and doctrine – while preserving in force the fundamental acts enacted in the 1930s. At this time the process of unifying private law was finished through the decree of 11 October 1946 – Property  Law (Prawo rzeczowe, Dz.U. 1946, vol. 57, item 319, in force since 1 January 1947), the decree of 8 October 1946 – Inheritance Law (Prawo spadkowe, Dz.U. 1946, vol. 60, item 328, in force since 1 January 1947) and the Family Code of 27 June 1950 (Kodeks rodzinny, Dz.U. 1950, vol. 34, item 308, in force since 1 October 1950).

In order to harmonise and re-structure the system of private law in the late 1950s, comprehensive codification works commenced, resulting in the 1964 enactment of the three codes mentioned above (cf. point 3), which replaced most of the prior regulations. A decade later (in 1974), the aforementioned codification of labour law also took place, repealing the last part of the Code of Obligations still in force – the provisions on labour contracts. The codes preserved the core concepts and structures of the former acts, in many cases adopting their provisions wholesale.

The legislative scheme construed by these codes was sustained without any fundamental changes until the end of the 1980s. Due to the change in the socio-economic regime after the democratic transformation, Polish private law was significantly amended – especially by removing the typical symptoms of socialist doctrine (such as the diversification in the forms of property, or preferences for the state in private law dealings) and introducing constructions typical for the free market concept (e.g. the explicit declaration of freedom of contract in Article 3531 CC).

4. Further legislative action

Since the turn of 1980s and 90s, Polish private law has experienced further significant alterations. On the one hand these were aimed at modernising its regulations in the areas where social and economic developments had made the existing construction out-of-date and not effective enough. These changes – still on-going – pertained, among other things, to contract formation, contractual formalities, new types of contracts (such as leasing) and certain elements of inheritance law. In parallel, Polish private law was (and still is) shaped by EU legislation, which entailed both the enactment of new regulations (e.g. in terms of agency contract) and amending the wording or interpretation of the already existing provisions.

The legislative work carried out recently tends primarily towards further modernisation and order in the private law domain. A significant part of the work concentrates upon property and inheritance issues (cf. the respective columns of the site). A separate part of these changes covers the implementation of EU legislation, recently predominantly in the field of B2C contracts (cf. CONSUMER LAW).

In the meantime, there is much more thorough legislative work going on, with a view to new codifications in the private law sphere. Currently they are particularly being developed in the field of substantive law. After the 2006 enactment of the Green Book, reviewing the current state of legislation and establishing guidelines for a future civil code (also available in English – http://www.ejcl.org/112/greenbookfinal-2.pdf), the Civil Law Codification Commission published a preliminary draft of the first part of general provisions of the code. The further parts of the code are currently under advanced preparatory works.