Thursday, 30 June 2011

Insult to injury -- a recommendation about a law firm to avoid

In my 1 June 2011 post, I talked about a traffic accident I had and my negative experiences with the police and justice system of Lithuania.  I didn't mention the law firm that represented me because I had nothing positive to say about the firm except that the people I dealt with seemed relatively nice.  I'm compelled to write about that firm now because of a recent incident.

I was represented by the lawyer Darius Gumbrevicius, who does business as Advokato Dariaus Gumbreviciaus kontora.  The law firm he works for is called Advokates Dianos Gumbreviciutes kontora.

Just a couple of days ago I got the final bill for my legal services.  That came as quite a shock since I was sure that I had paid my final bill some time ago.  Not long after I decided to go to court about my traffic accident, I got a bill for LTL 756.25 (USD 317/EUR 220) and promptly paid it.  After the case went to court, I got another bill, this one for LTL 907.50 (USD 379/EUR 264).  I assumed that this was some sort of total bill for services, and I therefore paid the difference between the two bills.  That sum was more or less what Darius Gumbrevicius told me when I asked how much it would cost to take the matter to court: "about LTL 700". As it turns out, however, the two bills were separate, meaning that my total costs to take this matter to court were LTL 1663.75 (USD 696/EUR 484).  Holy moolah, Batman!  That seems like an awful lot of money to charge someone to take a traffic offence to court, especially one for which the potential fine was LTL 100 (USD 42/EUR 29).

The law firm and I exchanged several e-mails as I tried to wrap my head around this new sum.  Now, I have to admit that the law firm explained the fees in detail (that 1 hour of services is LTL 250 + 21% VAT, that 2.5 hours was spend doing this, that 3 hours was spent doing that, etc.).  I was even told that I had received a discount (some services were supposedly provided free of charge) since "only the preparation of the complaint [for court] took about 3 hours".  (It was two pages long.)

I suppose that it could be said that on the surface of this situation everything looks more or less kosher, except for the fact that I understood that my total bill would be less than half of what it actually was, and maybe that could be considered simply a misunderstanding, not misrepresentation or fraud.  Right?  Well, my opinion is slightly different.  I feel that I was deceived about the total fees and about my chances of winning the case, and I was decidedly not satisfied with the strategy or performance of my lawyer.

Concerning the fees, let's give the law firm the benefit of the doubt and say that there was a misunderstanding (which, again, I don't believe was the case).  But I would say that a professional law firm should be open and up-front about the the expected fee to represent a person, especially if that person is a foreigner and language or cultural differences might cause misunderstandings.  I would never have taken the matter to court had I known how much it was going to cost.  I think that was the point in keeping me ignorant of the total costs.

Concerning my chances of winning the case, the law firm said, "you were informed about the fact that the probability to win the case is small and you knew that from the very beginning".  I do not remember hearing anything such as that said.  I remember being told that I "had a chance".  I assumed that meant a 50% chance.  Perhaps that's a cultural or language difference and another misunderstanding, but again I feel as if I was misled.

Concerning the quality of the services provided, well, it's only my opinion, but I felt that there was a lack of quality.  Perhaps this lawyer wasn't used to dealing with traffic offences.  Maybe there was another problem.  I don't know.  But I can say that he himself admitted to me that his delay in pursuing the matter was the reason we had to appeal the decision of the traffic police rather than file suit against the actual culprit (the person who caused the accident).  I can also say that one point used in the appeal was completely meaningless--that the police had not provided a translator during an interview.  As it turns out, since one was provided in court, that is enough to make up for the earlier "oversight" according to Lithuanian law.  Apparently my lawyer wasn't aware of that.  I can add that I also wasn't happy that my lawyer didn't focus on the discrepancies in the written and oral testimony of the person that caused the accident.  That seemed to me to be one of the most important aspects of the case.  That's my opinion.  Perhaps Lithuanian law doesn't worry about such things as giving false testimony or lying to collect an insurance claim.

Because of all this, I've decided to report this matter here and state that I cannot recommend using the services of this law firm.  My decision to report this matter was reinforced by something that the law firm wrote me: "it is your decision whether or not to report this matter on your blog and 'warn people to avoid using the services' of our law firm (for the latter mentioned, we explain, that in a such case, we will be forced to take legal remedies against you for the ungrounded information made public - defamation".  Wow.  That's not very good PR.  Anyway, I have tried to not include any ungrounded information.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Lithuanians spend more on food than most

According to "Lietuviai pagal islaidas maistui - antri ES" (Lithuanians in second place in EU according to spending on food), an article I found on, the price of food products in Lithuania has increased 11 per cent over the past year, and Lithuania is in second place behind Romania according to amount of money spent on food.

It's written that the average Lithuanian spends about one-fourth of all expenses on food products, not including drinks.  The European average is 12-14 per cent.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The emigration problems of Lithuania

Emigration is a problem that has plagued Lithuania at various times in its history, and it's become a particularly vexing problem since the country regained independence about 20 years ago.  Here are some articles from the past several months talking about that situation.

In "Lietuvos gyventoju skaicius pernai mazejo sparciausiai ES" (Population of Lithuania decreasing most rapidly in EU), Lina Laurinaityte writes that the benefit of the money emigrants send to Lithuania is overvalued and that the decreasing birthrate and increasing mortality threaten to cause new social and economic problems.

"Those who leave are active in business and brave.  That is needed by the country, for the political sphere and for non-governmental organisations", Buguslavas Gruzevskis, a director at the Social Research Centre, said.

"The number of children is decreasing and many children who remain are like orphans with living parents. [...]  What that means is that a significant amount of new social problems will arise in the next 10-15 years", Rasa Alisauskiene, director-general of Baltic Research, said.

In "Emigracijos prognoze siu metu pabaigai - 90 tukst. isvykusiuju" (Emigration forecast for end of year - 90,000 emigrants), which was written in September 2010, the scale of emigration is looked into.  According to data from the government, 58,328 people declared their emigration between 1 January 2010 and 31 August 2010.  The article goes on to say, however, that the data concerning the amount of people leaving is being warped by a new law requiring inhabitants to pay monthly premiums into the government-run health system.  Because of that law, many more people were registering the fact that they had left the country, and many of those had been abroad for a significant amount of time.

Dainius Paukste, vice director at the Department of Migration, stated that the image of Lithuania was being formed by emigrants.  "The people leaving our country, whether we like it or not, help to form an image for the world that Lithuania is a country of unhappy people.  This advertisement seems free now (though everyone knows that the only free cheese is moldy cheese), but in the future we may get a horrible bill for it", he said.

"Demografine katastrofa: Lietuvoje jau nera ne 3 mln zmoniu" (Demographic catastrophe: no longer 3 million people in Lithuania), was written on 9 May 2011, right after the recent census was completed.  Preliminary data suggested that there were no longer 3 million people in Lithuania, but additional data has led the Department of Statistics to report that there are just over 3 million.  There's actually little information in the article but there is a video accompanying the article that contains several interesting facts.  It is stated that when Lithuania regained independence about 20 years ago there were 3.7 million inhabitants.  According to the most optimistic forecasts now, by 2050 there will be only 2.5 million people.  Prof Stankuniene, a demographer, states that the problem is threefold, with the increasing mortality rate and decreasing birth rate adding to the problems caused by runaway emigration.  In the past, I've heard her say that the biggest problems were actually the mortality and birth rate.

Over the past several months, I've also read several other articles talking about this problem.  Besides facts and figures, the authors usually discuss why so many people are leaving, what can be done about the problem, and why the government is doing so little (or nothing) to combat the problem.  After all, population has decreased about 19 per cent (the same as if 62.3 million US citizens left the U.S.A.).  And best case scenario, another 16.7 per cent of the population will disappear.  You would think that supporting families, creating jobs, and improving healthcare would be priorities for the government.  They aren't, though.

If things go on as they are, Lithuania will certainly disappear as a political entity in the future.  Possible ways to fix things would be a balanced policy of immigration, liberalising labour laws to attract blue-collar workers, and providing more support for education and research and development to attract the brains to help move the country forward in those spheres.  I've read that Lithuania has the strictest immigration laws in the EU.  From my personal experience with the government/Department of Migration here, I've never felt welcome.  I've heard the same story from friends from other countries.  Now that Lithuania is a member of the EU, things have changed for citizens of other EU countries.  If you're not from the EU, however, things have actually got worse.  And to all that can be added the propensity that many Lithuanians have for being racist/xenophobic.  In my experience, the foreigners who live here, especially those with families, tend to be better "citizens" than the majority of Lithuanians.  Unless the government begins to make us feel welcome and safe and protected by the law, many of us will eventually leave the country and take our children.  I know that I consider it my duty to make sure that my children will be able to leave Lithuania when they are old enough.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

My accident or how I lost the last shreds of faith I had in the Lithuanian police and judicial system

I was hoping that I would be able to entitle this "My accident or the cost of justice in Lithuania", but that hope was crushed by the verdict issued by the judge some time ago. But let me start at the beginning. On 19 February, I was involved in a traffic accident. As I was making a left turn at an intersection, the driver behind me (also making a left turn) accelerated and began passing me (as we were turning). I honked to warn him to watch out and then after he cut in front of me I honked again and flashed my high beams as a warning to drive more carefully. He was apparently angered by my actions because he braked suddenly and came to a stop right in front of me. I saw his brake lights but assumed he was preparing to turn into a nearby filling station. When I understood he had come to a complete stop, I slammed on my brakes, but the road was covered with snow and I could not stop in time.

When the police arrived on the scene, they questioned me and then talked to the other driver. Before even looking at the accident, they said that everything was clear--that I was following to closely. That the other driver was driving recklessly (passing as he did and then slamming on his brakes in the middle of the road for no reason) did not seem important. The patrolmen pushed me very hard to fill out paperwork stating that the accident was solely my fault, but despite their threats (big fines or confiscation of my driving licence) (and even though they said several times that I was wasting their time--their shift had ended and they said they should have been home already), I refused to take full blame for the accident, which meant that we had to go to the police station to fill out paperwork (and where I was admonished by a senior officer for "mocking" the patrolmen--after all their shift had already ended and they should be at home).

Refusing to take full blame for the accident also meant that I had to go to the police station on 22 Feb. to attend a hearing, which was ostensibly to determine whether I was actually at fault. The officer I met at that hearing was Sigitas Kūjalis. I explained how the accident happened, and I told him that I had found a video recording of the accident (made by a security camera on the Polish Cultural Center) but had not had time to get a copy. We scheduled a meeting for another day. At that time, I showed him the video and explained to him that there was a discrepancy between the written evidence that the other driver had given (that he hadn't stopped) and what was on the recording. He nonchalantly flipped through the pages of the accident file and said, "I don't see that he was lying". He then told me that I would have to pay a fine of about US$40.

I decided to take the matter to court. Surely everything could be cleared up there. It was not the fine that bothered me (I knew that hiring a lawyer would cost at least $300); it was mostly the principle of the matter. Of course, that I would be paying higher insurance rates (and would most likely be paying thousands more for this accident because of the higher rates) was also a consideration. My wife was 100 per cent against the move. But then again she had earlier said that I should take the easy way out and take full responsibility for the accident, so I decided to ignore her advice. The judge was Algimantas Valantinas, a former prosecutor general who had lost his post because of some malfeasance. According to my lawyer, the hearing was conducted in a reasonably and seemingly fair manner. I explained my side of the story, putting particular emphasis on the fact that the written testimony of the other driver obviously differed from the filmed evidence. The other driver lied once again, though he changed his story slightly for the judge. Instead of saying that he hadn't slowed down at all (much less stopped), he stated that he'd slowed down because he thought that I was signaling that something was wrong. Nevertheless, the difference between the other driver's original written testimony and his oral testimony in court remained. And I pointed that out.

The decision of the judge was therefore shocking. The basic decision, that the fine was assessed fairly, was made because the judge decided to take the word of the other driver and disregard the filmed record. I have no doubt that this decision was made on the basis of the identity of the other driver, Filionis August. His identity is connected with the licence plate of his vehicle, DOU 222 (Toyota Land Cruiser), another one for the bad drivers' hall of shame. My lawyer found out before our hearing that licence plates having three numbers that are the same were in the past given to anyone who was formerly in the police force or to people with ties to the police force. So, it can't be proven, but it seems that I hit a former police officer, and in Lithuania that means that I'll always be at fault. I'm sure that the thought of "what can he do for me in the future?" was also not in my favour.

What does that say about the Lithuanian police? Justice system? Filionis August? Well, as for this Filionis August fellow, who I found to be a particularly slimy 'person', I can say this: Fil, you taught me a lesson. Justice in Lithuania doesn't come from the systems the government has set up to "serve" the people. It comes from oneself. If you're lucky, we won't cross paths again. And you can better believe that I'll boycott your company, August & Ko, and encourage others to do the same.

Now, this incident itself is nasty business: being blamed for an accident that at least wasn't entirely my fault and having to pay dearly for this in the form of increased auto insurance premiums. But this incident was actually the straw that broke the camel's back. We've had problems with the police before, the most prominent incident being when our car was hit while parked on the street. (The culprit was caught but then "lost". Some very angry calls from me to succeedingly higher layers of police administration finally solved everything.) There have been other minor incidents as well. And our experiences with the justice system here have been rather ugly as well. The most prominent of those experiences was about a year ago when my wife made a mistake on some pro-forma document that needed a judge's approval and the judge, Petras Kazys Smaliukas, asked for a bribe to help straighten things out. Nevertheless, I--being the naive, trusting fellow I am--preserved some modicum of respect for those two arms of the Lithuanian government. Past tense.

So, I'd like to say something to the people involved in this situation: patrolman Jurij Pliargo, senior specialist Sigitas Kūjalis, and Judge Algimantas Valantinas. You shame yourselves and your country, and you are part of the reason why living in this country, to put it bluntly, sucks. And you know that's not just my opinion.