Martin Prokop is transforming public interest law and challenging the Czech Republic's legal system by encouraging concrete action from individuals and institutions. He promotes an interconnected approach that seeks change for critical legal policy, encourages broad-based citizen participation, and offers legal assistance to those who need it most.
The New Idea
Martin firmly believes that one of the basic conditions of an open civil society is a functioning legal environment that balances the interests of the individual with the public. Based on his previous experiences and an awareness of the legal environment and practices in Czech society, he has instigated a public interest law movement to enable citizens and their organizations to engage more effectively in the democratic process. Martin's organization–the Public Interest Law Association–works to transform several dimensions of the law.
The association strategically pursues changes in areas of the law most critical to public interest. Through lobbying and drafting legislation, Martin and his colleagues address policies that target specific cases setting precedents in crucial areas. The association encourages broader citizen participation by engaging law schools, citizen organizations, and diverse community members in all aspects of common, civil, and legislative law. Martin also protects the rights of individuals and interest groups by offering legal aid.
His organization harnesses the collective power of professional and citizen interest groups both to build economies of scale in management, training, representation, lobbying, and fundraising and to encourage democracy and advance the public interest throughout the Czech Republic.
Countless newly emerging and unresolved problems have made it difficult for the Czech society to put into practice the rule of law necessary to build a democratic civil society. Shortcomings within and between the public, citizen, and private sectors inhibit the mutual accountability necessary for individuals and the public to exercise their civil rights. Effective development of these sectors can foster a sense of cooperation and enhance the public interest.
The structure and practices of the Czech government have essentially decreased the power of the country's democracy. Democratic patterns and legal institutions are often artificially grafted onto unreformed structures of public power, creating an environment with corruption, low effectiveness, and above all, the inclination to link government institutions with commercial and political interest groups. The incompetence of government institutions has both subjective causes (buck-passing, lack of courage, and personal responsibility of judges and government officials) and objective causes (lack of a quality education system to train government officials, short-term thinking, and tenure of top executives).
An equally grave problem related to the government is the state's intentional disempowerment of democratic legal frameworks. After Communism fell, a new constitution was put in place to safeguard public interest and provide incentives for citizen participation. But in the last few years, the government has started to rescind control mechanisms over state power–mechanisms initially put in place to secure a democratic and transparent decision-making process.
In addition, the government lacks experience balancing interests and coordinating citizen initiatives. Therefore, the state has traditionally worked to block the actions of public interest groups rather than address them. This is in stark contrast to the coordination of state and business interests. The government has needed to engage businesses and therefore has developed a better system of addressing interests in the business sector. The imbalance in treatment has created a stark difference in lobbying forces. The imbalance is further reinforced by the collective expropriation of citizen power in the late 1990s by Czech politicians and business leaders who started to realize the emerging power of the citizen sector.
Citizen sector organizations' solutions to the legal and social problems have often been inconsistent and superficial. Citizen groups are usually not equipped to monitor and take complex problems to court. Their activities are not systematized because of erratic efforts to satisfy the myriad interests of endowment funds and government ministries. Consequently, such groups have neither acquired long-term credibility nor developed solid concepts. The inadequate legal backing for their activities has produced a less-than-professional standard of services to the public. This creates the larger problem of the groups' insufficient participation in the preparation or critique of new bills.
The general public is the final piece necessary for the tri-sector cooperation. In the Czech Republic there is still a low level of legal awareness on the part of the citizens, particularly people from the lower social strata–those at the highest risk of becoming victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and other criminal and social wrongs. One of the most ingrained consequences of the past regime is the public's dependence on the state and its organizations. This impedes people from solving their problems independently and reinforces state paternalism. People have the tendency to give up quickly when faced with bureaucratic resistance.
Martin's Public Interest Law Association is the first institution in the Czech Republic truly focused on strengthening public interest law. Through his organization, Martin has shifted his primary target from specific topics like human rights or the environment to the larger theme of public interest law itself. He pulls different interest groups under the association's collective umbrella in order to strengthen the presence and awareness of public interest law, and thereby leverage the power of each specific interest group. The strategy of this umbrella organization is to lobby, provide legal aid, involve different participants in the legal process, and build an organization based on shared decision-making.
The association and its participating organizations provide legal aid on several different fronts. In the area of human rights, this includes pro bono legal assistance to the victims of domestic violence (physical abuse, incest, sexual abuse, and rape); legal aid to children in distress and families in difficult life situations; and the dignified and tactful deployment of the police. In the future, this work will also target police power abuse directed at people apprehended at rallies and members of the Roma minority. In matters of ecology, the association provides legal counseling to grassroots activists from rural areas, the lay public, and ecological organizations to ensure environment protection. These activities protect citizens from discrimination by state administration agents, ensure equal chances of individuals and civic associations in litigation with big investors, and strengthen control mechanisms with regard to the activities of the public administration.
Martin's association also mobilizes its membership to carry out legislative campaigns, providing expert evaluation of proposed litigation in order to help frame the new laws. This involves representation in various ministries' work groups, participation in the government's legislative council, direct communication with various officials, and the delivery of concrete suggestions and revisions. With respect to each proposal or imminent legislative change, the association leads a media campaign targeting legal professionals, journalists, and the general public.
To ensure the continuing spread of the association model that translates into the enforcement of the rights of public interest, it is important to build dependable human resources. Accordingly, Martin is educating the new generation of young lawyers through an innovative experiential teaching process. By working with future lawyers, he is transferring an interest in public interest law before these individuals are set on their career paths. He is increasing the number of lawyers participating in issues like the protection of human rights. Without the formal academic commitment of universities to support this work, Martin decided to pilot this aspect of his work outside of the university structure. Once the value is established, he will again address the universities. This model of teaching brings professors, lawyers, and students together to address areas of public interest law. An example of this work is the Summer School of Human Rights–a six-week training program concentrating on enforcing environmental laws, the rights of women and children as victims of domestic violence, and the rights of refugees and other minorities. A central aspect of Martin's strategy is that he builds strong teams and promotes leadership through consensus. Not having a CEO or executive director, the association is an organization that does not depend on one individual. This creates a flexible structure that can work within different social and political contexts. As each organization under the association umbrella has an equal vote, a democratic, team-based decision-making process is exemplified throughout the organization. This empowers committee members to play a larger role, and the resulting strong foundation ensures the sustainability of the organization, which is not destroyed even if key people decide to leave.
Martin grew up in Brno in a family that valued education. From an early age, quality books shed light on political science and philosophy from the era of the democratic First Republic and the thaw period in the late 1960s. Martin noticed the contrast between the civic and social decline of Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s and the ideals in books by authors like TomáS Garrigue Masaryk, Ferdinand Peroutka, Karel Čapek, Marcus Aurelius, and Henry Thoreau.
When the overthrow of the Communists came in 1989, Martin was 16. He spent several years enjoying freedom, studying, and traveling. Only at university, in the mid-1990s, did he become aware that the development of the political and social culture in the Czech Republic had not taken the best direction. The government was then led by the Civic Democratic Party that arrogantly promoted several ecologically controversial building projects against the will of the citizens. In doing so, the government reverted to using unlawful and nondemocratic methods.
Out of a desire to start challenging the political realities, Martin used his background in law and involvement in civic activism to create a student legal ecological organization. Together with three other fellow students, he founded Ecological Legal Services (ELS) in 1995. At the time the organization was part of the nationwide ecological "Brontosaurus" movement. Involving law student colleagues and others of his generation, Martin started ELS as a joint initiative, not a project that would stand or fall by a single individual's efforts. Today, ELS is one of the most influential citizen organizations in the Czech Republic with offices in Brno, Tábor, and Prague.