Brazil: The Land Of Many Lawyers And Very Slow Justice | KUOW News and Information

Brazil: The Land Of Many Lawyers And Very Slow Justice

Nov 5, 2014
Originally published on November 6, 2014 7:23 am

Brazil is teeming with law schools and lawyers. But the wheels of justice in the country turn slowly — most cases take years to resolve and sometimes even decades.

To understand why, we visited the musty offices of Judge Laurence Mattos in Sao Paulo. Mattos' suit is gray; his smile is thin. He seems as if his job has flattened him somehow. He's not very verbose either, and when he does speak, it's in a monotone. For 22 years, Mattos explains succinctly, he's been a judge dealing with financial issues in Brazil. End of story.

What is extraordinary is his workload.

"Today we have 1,660,000 cases in progress in just my department," he says. His department consists of five judges.

"We get to a point in which administrating all this is practically impossible. We are able to do the best we can — with even some reasonable efficiency ... but it feels like something out of control," he says with startling understatement.

The court over which he presides deals with tax avoidance — he processes all the claims of the municipal government against tax dodgers in this vast city.

He explains that the law as it stands in Brazil means that his court basically has to act as a collection agency

"So, if you need to freeze a bank account, we have to do it. If a vehicle needs to be seized, or a payment collected, everything to do with a tax issues goes through this judiciary," he says.

'Inhumane Volume Of Work'

To get a sense of what he's dealing with, he takes me into the belly of the bureaucratic beast to see a filing center.

There are rows and rows and rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves, stacked with paperwork. And even that isn't enough: They've had to stack some of the paperwork on the floor in between the shelves. It's a tidal wave of documents.

The head of the processing department, Renato Faria, calls it "an inhumane volume of work."

Luciano de Souza Godoy, a litigator and a professor at Fundaçao Getulio Vargas Law School in Sao Paulo, explains that part of the issue is that Brazilians are litigious. Really litigious. There are 95 million cases in the country right now — or one lawsuit for every two people.

Brazil's 1988 Constitution "created many rights ... and people discovered that they could litigate to get them," he says.

Here is another telling statistic: Brazil has more law schools — some 1,240 — than the rest of the world combined. And they have turned out some 800,000 lawyers — which means there are more lawyers per capita in Brazil than in the U.S.

They all have to eat, Godoy quips.

The judicial system hasn't kept pace with all that lawyering. There are 16,000 judges in Brazil, and many positions aren't filled.

"Court employees, judges — it's a Brazilian phenomenon — there are vacancies. Even though the initial salary is very attractive, some $10,000 a month, graduates end up joining private firms," he explains.

Godoy says if I came in to see him today and I had a case, even a simple one, it would take at least three to five years to get resolved — and probably longer. There are stories of people getting old and dying while waiting for their cases to be adjudicated.

The Long Wait

For the living, like Renato Silva de Melo, the waiting can have tragic consequences.

Melo was only 4 years old when he had his first corrective surgery on his knee. It was meant to be his last because the deformity he had wasn't considered severe.

Instead, though, what followed were years of hospital stays and the eventual amputation of both his legs after that initial surgery was botched by the public hospital that undertook it.

In 1997 the family sued for compensation. It wasn't until 2009 — 12 years later — that Melo won against the hospital's appeal. The hospital then wrangled over the amount of compensation. The case was finally settled this year — after 17 years of fighting in the courts over what lawyers say was a clear case of medical malpractice.

The many years he's been fighting his case has meant he hasn't had the money to upgrade his prosthetics and to make his small house wheelchair-friendly.

More than anything, Melo thinks about the toll it has taken on his mother.

"It disrupted her life; she always had to go to the hospitals with me. She's always by my side. I saw her losing many jobs to help me," he says. "The money will bring some comfort to her and I will be able to help her a bit after all she has done for me."

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is NPR's South America correspondent. Follow her @lourdesgnavarro

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Brazil claims to be home to more law schools than the rest of the world combined. The country's Department of Justice lists more than 1,200 hundred. So no lack of lawyers in that country, but still, the wheels of justice move slowly - very slowly. Most cases take years to resolve, sometimes decades. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro decided to find out why and she started by meeting a judge in Sao Paulo. Here's his story.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Laurence Mattos speaks in a monotone. His suit is gray. His smile is thin. He seems like he's somehow been flattened by his job.

LAURENCE MATTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's not very verbose either. He explains, succinctly, he's been a judge dealing with financial issues for 22 years in Brazil - end of story.

MATTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why are we talking to him today? His monumental, colossal workload.

MATTOS: (Through translator) Today, we have 1,660,000 cases in progress in just my department.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's him working on all those cases with just four other judges. He says with startling understatement...

MATTOS: (Through translator) We get to a point in which administrating all of this is practically impossible. We are able to do the best we can with even some reasonable efficiency, but it feels like something out of control.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The court over which he presides deals with tax avoidance. He processes all the claims of the municipal government against tax dodgers in this vast city.

Wow.

So I can get a sense of what he's dealing with, he takes me into the belly of the bureaucratic beast to see one of their filing centers.

In front of me, there are rows and rows and rows of floor to ceiling shelves and there are stacked with paperwork, but even that isn't enough and they've had to stack some of the paperwork on the floor in between these shelves because they are just inundated with so many cases here.

RENATO FARIA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The head of the processing department, Renato Faria, tells me it's an inhumane volume of work. Luciano de Souza Godoy is a litigator and a professor at the Law School of Sao Paulo. He explains part of the issue is that Brazilians are litigious - really litigious. There are 95 million cases going on in the country right now. There is one lawsuit for every two people, which is a very high ratio.

LUCIANO DE SOUZA GODOY: (Through translator) The 1988 Constitution created many rights and people discovered that they could litigate to get them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The judicial system hasn't kept pace with all that lawyering. There are only just over 16,000 judges in Brazil and many positions aren't filled.

GODOY: (Through translator) Court employees, judges - it's a Brazilian phenomenon. There are vacancies. Even though the initial salary is very attractive to some - $10,000 a month - graduates end up joining private firms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says if I came in to see him today and I had a case, even a simple one, it would take at least three to five years to get resolved and probably longer. For some people, it's been a lot longer with tragic consequences.

RENATO SILVA DE MELO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Meet 34-year-old Renato Silva de Melo. When he was a small child around four years old, he had surgery to correct a deformity with his knees, but the hospital messed up and he ended up with years of hospital stays and, eventually, both his legs were amputated. In 1997, the family sued for compensation. It wasn't until 2009 - 12 years later - that he won against the hospital's appeal. The hospital then wrangled some more over the amount of compensation he was due and this year the case was finally resolved. That's 17 years of fighting in the courts over what lawyers say was a clear case of liability. He says he needs the money to upgrade his prosthetics and to make his small house wheelchair friendly. But he also thinks a lot about his mom, he says.

DE MELO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It disrupted her life. She always had to go to the hospitals with me, he says. She's always by my side. I saw her losing many jobs to help me. The money will bring some comfort for her, he says, and I will be able to help her a bit after all she's done for me, all these many, many years of trying to push this case through the system. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.