A study by Brazil’s Ministry of Justice suggests that Brazil should have six times more public defenders to serve the poor population.
According to the secretary of Judicial Reform, Pierpaulo Bottini, there is no estimate of the quantity that is necessary, but the study, Diagnosis of the Public Defenders’ Office in Brazil, found that there are 1.86 public defenders per 100 thousand inhabitants, while the number of judges for the same-sized population group is 7.7.
“The purpose was to draw attention to this institution and discover its shortcomings and how it operates in Brazil,” Bottini revealed. The study, concluded in 2004, was released last week.
The Federal Constitution says that the State must provide free legal assistance to people who are unable to afford a lawyer. Nearly all Brazilian states already count on this service, with the exception of Santa Catarina, Goiás, and São Paulo.
The study indicated that most of the Public Defender’s Offices are poorly organized and lack the means to serve the entire public. “Only 42% of the bailiwicks [‘comarcas’], which are the judicial districts in the cities, are covered by Public Defender’s Offices,” the secretary observed.
“With this study, we verified that states with the lowest Human Development Indices are the ones with the greatest dearth of Public Defender’s Offices in the bailiwicks.
“This leads to a vicious cycle: The poorer the area, the less that is spent on the Public Defender’s Office. Consequently, the population will have less access to the courts, and poor people will have less awareness of their rights.”
The function of the Public Defender’s Office is to advise citizens on their rights, mediate disputes, and facilitate agreements which, when formalized, are ratified by the judge. If a conflict results in a legal action, the public defender files suit and accompanies the case until a final decision is rendered.
In the state Public Defender’s Offices, legal services cover civil law, criminal law, penal law, family law, tax law, and workmen’s compensation cases.
The Federal Public Defender’s Office, on the other hand, acts in the sphere of federal law. “A citizen who thinks he or she has cause to sue the INSS [National Social Security Institute], for example, will have the suit accompanied by the Federal Public Defender’s Office,” the secretary explained.
The state Public Defender’s Offices are institutions linked to the governor or the state justice department. Each one has its own organic law, which establishes duties and jurisdictions.
The Constitution, for example, does not determine the income categories that the Public Defender’s Offices should serve. The Public Defender’s Office in the Federal District adopts the popular criterion that citizens entitled to free legal help are those with a monthly income that does not exceed five minimum wages.
The Ministry of Justice study concluded that, in order for the Public Defender’s Offices to have a better structure and conditions to serve the population, it is necessary for the institution to possess autonomy.
The budgetary, financial, and administrative autonomy of the Public Defender’s Offices is provided for in the Judicial Reform bill that is before the National Congress. If approved, the institution will be able to set its own budget, which currently depends upon a decision by the Executive branch, and to manage these resources.
Moreover, it will be able to hold public service exams, whenever the need arises to renew the staff. “This even allows the possibility of remunerating student interns, which is currently prohibited,” said the public defender in the Federal District, Stefano Borges.