While my experiences in dealing with corrupt and misguided public officials are not of the same magnitude as those of my father and my grandfather I do take some pride in participating in something of a family tradition. Here’s what happened to my father and grandfather when they became caught up in the capricious application of laws designed to limit the assistance they could offer to clients. I must say, I do note quite a number of similarities in the way the regulator handled matters.
Austrian Legal Practitioner
My grandfather, Jan Oldrich Mericka was a popular lawyer in Vienna, Austria. Having decided practice in a role similar to that of a barrister in common law countries, Jan made a name for himself as a very capable defence counsel.
Changes in the legal system, and the passing of tough migration laws, created difficulties for a number of Jan’s clients. (Because they belonged to particular ethnic minority, these clients were severely disadvantaged, and sought to migrate to other countries.)
If members of this minority group wanted to migrate, they had to hold visas for countries or states that would accept them. Their preferred destinations, England, Canada and the United States, would not grant the required visas, and so Jan was instructed to investigate other options.
Jan’s diligence resulted in his brokering an arrangement with the government of Ecuador, which issued visas to a some of Jan’s immediate clients.
Word of mouth referrals resulted in an influx of enquiries and before long, Jan was processing large numbers of visas. Unfortunately, this drew the attention of the legal regulator, who was of the view that, while the processing of a small number of visa applications was desirable (insofar as this gave the appearance that the legal regulator and the government were prepared to permit a small number of departures), the processing of “too many” was not.
Jan was advised by the legal regulator that his activities were no longer acceptable, but when Jan challenged the legal basis of the regulator’s assertions no more was said on the issue. Encouraged by the regulator’s apparent acceptance of his arguments, and the regulator’s withdrawal from discussion on the matter, Jan continued to provide this service to his clients.
Unexpected Legal Action
In November of 1942, without any prior advice, forewarning or notice, legal action was launched. Jan was accused of behaving illegally by “arranging” visas, rather than simply assisting clients for whom visas had already been arranged.
This argument did not take into account the desirability of allowing the clients to pay for their own travel, or the government’s purported desire to reduce the number of members of this ethnic minority. It appeared that the real purpose behind the regulator’s action was to put a stop to a business that was providing assistance to a group of people whose interests, in the view of the government, were not important.
According to my father, the court went through the motions of a trial to give the appearance that it was examining evidence and interpreting the law, but the decision was made before the hearing had even started.
It was inevitable that the hearing would go against the defendant, and there was nothing that anyone could say or do about it.
Lack of support
My grandfather was dismayed at first by the lack of support for his cause. He had done all he could to assist his clients, and had a clear conscience about the work he had done for them, but being right was simply not good enough.
Eventually he realised that those from whom he expected support, including his law society, were more concerned about the difficulties he was creating by drawing attention to a very ugly issue – it was embarrassing and potentially dangerous. Their preference was that the problem should be ignored, and the legal regulator placated.
My father and grandfather moved to Czechoslovakia after the war, just as the communists were moving to take control, and was arrested for his anti-communist views.
My grandfather died in prison in 1946, supposedly of a heart attack. My father told me that he did not believe that a heart attack was the cause of death, and that he was sure that my grandfather had been secretly executed. We have no way of knowing the the truth.
I have recounted the story of my father’s and grandfather’s experience because I feel that I have now, albeit unwillingly, become part of a family tradition.
Of course, my experience is paled into insignificance beside that of my father and his father, and I do not want to suggest that it is anything like that experienced by victims of the NAZI regime.
I can say, however, that my experience has given me a much greater insight into the sense of betrayal and loss that my grandfather experienced at the hands of a rotten legal regulator.