It was a summer day in 2017 when Sylwia Gregorczyk-Abram, a 34-year-old lawyer, heard a crazy idea.

She had been messaged by a legal acquaintance, Michał Wawrykiewicz, who like her was worried about changes that Poland’s nationalist government was introducing to the judicial system. He wondered how they could convince people that the independence of the judiciary was not some abstract nicety but the firm ground underpinning democracy.

“He had this crazy idea,” she recalled. “How to convince people, citizens, why independence of the judiciary is so important. Ask famous people, celebrities, actors to do it for us.”

Gregorczyk-Abram was the right person for the job. Working at the Warsaw office of an international law firm since 2006, she had co-founded Constitution Week in Poland, an initiative where lawyers give talks in schools to inform teenagers about law. She called her friend Maria Ejchart-Dubois, a human rights expert and co-founder of Constitution Week, who in turn contacted Paulina Kieszkowska-Knapik, a high-flying specialist in pharmaceutical law.

The four met at one of Poland’s largest demonstrations in years. “People were protesting all over Poland at every street where the court is. They realised instinctively that something is taken away,” said Wawrykiewicz. And that was the spark to create Wolne Sądy, the Free Courts Foundation.

People protest against judicial reforms in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw in November 2017. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Instead of drafting legal papers and perusing legal tomes, the lawyers found themselves acting, scripting and directing short films intended to make the rule of law real. “Imagine you had a car accident and the other driver was somehow connected with a politician,” said Ejchart-Dubois. “Is the court going to be fair? Or you are a victim of domestic violence and the abuser is a member of a political party.”

Both such cases subsequently materialised, said Kieszkowska-Knapik. There were “hundreds of examples”, she said.

The early films featured actors, entertainers and writers, from the host of The Voice of Poland, Barbara Kurdej-Szatan, to the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. Some of the biggest hits starred the Wolne Sądy lawyers themselves: putting a legal twist on a scene from the Richard Curtis romcom Love Actually; playing children being given a nightmarish Christmas present; rapping about the constitution in a tribute to the Beastie Boys’ video parody of 1970s US cop shows, Sabotage.

A still from one of the short films made by and starring the lawyers from Poland’s Free Courts Foundation.
A still from one of the short films made by and starring the lawyers from Poland’s Free Courts Foundation. Photograph: Wolne Sądy

“It was a new concept for us, to communicate through movies, not to write articles, not to write books,” said Gregorczyk-Abram, speaking with her fellow lawyers in Brussels where they were collecting an award from the European parliament.

Anna Wójcik, a researcher at the Polish Academy of Science, said: “They were very innovative because they started communicating in a very attractive format to the general public. Of course you can say it’s attractive to people with certain tastes, living in urban areas … But they provided some accessible information about what is happening.”

The videos were only the start of a legal odyssey that would take them to the grand chambers of Europe’s highest courts and the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. The Wolne Sądy lawyers believe they were instrumental in persuading EU authorities to launch legal action against the Polish government over the forced retirement of supreme court judges, an attempt by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to control Poland’s top court.

The Free Courts Foundation team in the recording studio.
The Free Courts Foundation team in the recording studio. Photograph: Wolne Sady

The group has filed dozens of cases at the EU’s top court in Luxembourg and the European court of human rights in Strasbourg. In one landmark victory, this month the ECHR found Poland’s government to be “in blatant defiance of the rule of law”. In 13 rulings from Europe’s top courts, the Polish government has lost 13 times, according to Wolne Sądy’s tally.

The group has also represented judges in Poland forced out of their jobs, including Małgorzata Gersdorf, the head of the supreme court, whom the government attempted unsuccessfully to force out via early retirement.

“And yet the government never follows the verdicts,” Kieszkowska-Knapik said. “It is astonishing. So after every case … we need another case.”

Part of Wolne Sądy’s work is documenting every change PiS has made to the legal system since coming to power in 2015, summed up in the report 2,000 Days of Lawlessness. It wants to give a future government a roadmap to return to the rule of law.

“Every single idea we have in our plan is covered by the judgments of one of the European courts, so it’s not our opinions,” said Ejchart-Dubois. “So that is why we started all those proceedings in the court of justice, in the court of human rights, just to have proof, the coverage of the judgments.”

They are trying to convince opposition parties to unite behind this roadmap, to avoid internecine haggling over the rule of law.

Wawrykiewicz and Gregorczyk-Abram at the European court of justice, 2019
Wawrykiewicz and Gregorczyk-Abram at the European court of justice, 2019. Photograph: Wolne Sądy

As PiS enters its seventh winter in power, all this pro bono work on top of their day jobs is taking a toll. “We are extremely tired,” said Ejchart-Dubois. “But we are like guys with a rope: when one falls, the rest [step up],” added Kieszkowska-Knapik.

All four began their legal careers in more optimistic days, as Poland headed towards EU membership. “We observed from 1989 Poland developing, going in the right direction, going to western civilisation, we didn’t want to lose it,” Wawrykiewicz said.

Poland’s government is likely to keep them in business. The ruling party controlled by Jarosław Kaczyński is planning another overhaul of the supreme court. According to leaked documents seen by Polish media, the blueprint would mean any supreme court judge wishing to continue in post would have to be approved by the government-controlled national council of the judiciary.

“It’s quite devilish,” said Anna Wójcik, who observed that the proposals would make it easier to launch disciplinary proceedings against judges. “Who has disciplinary proceedings launched against them today in Poland? People who are critical of the government.”

The Wolne Sądy lawyers will be there to contest any such plan, on screen and in court. “Without this social resistance we would be like Belarus,” Kieszkowska-Knapik said.