Published On: November 20, 2014

Brazilian Courts are Buried

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Everyone in Brazil is accustomed to the slow wheels of justice. While Americans often complain that issues before their courts take too long to resolve, the US justice system is a paradise compared to Brazil’s. When asked in surveys, Brazilians often list the slow court system among the biggest problems in the country.

Thus, along with fighting political corruption and improving the economy, the government needs to find a solution to the court system backlog dilemma. Providing the population with a more efficient court system would add much-needed strength to the criminal justice apparatus. When a court system is inefficient, there is greater opportunity for injustice.

The problem rests not with a lack of laws, but rather the attitude of lawlessness that arises from the freedom of impunity and has led to millions of cases clogging the courts. Judge Laurence Mattos in São Paulo, who works in the government’s office of tax avoidance, has been dealing with his city’s financial legal cases for the past 22 years. He processes all the claims of the municipal government against tax dodgers in São Paulo. While his department consists of only five judges, they have 1.6 million cases in progress.


“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,” Mattos says with startling understatement.

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. The head of the processing department, Renato Faria, calls it “an inhumane volume of work.” There are so many paper documents in the office, they’ve run out of space.

Luciano de Souza Godoy, a litigator and a professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas Law School in São Paulo, explains that part of the issue is that Brazilians are 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.trade_show_paperwork

Along with plenty of work for the overworked judges, the backlog of law cases has stimulated an overabundance of lawyers. In fact, Brazil has 1240 law schools, compared to 200 schools in the US. All those law schools are busy graduating lawyers, which means Brazil now has about 800,000 licensed lawyers, or more lawyers per capita than the US.

By contrast, there are only 16,000 judges in Brazil. More judges are desperately needed, but 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 U$10,000 per month, graduates end up joining private firms,” Luciano explains. The frustration level is so high for many judges, that the profession struggles to attract candidates. In Brazil, it’s not required that a judge first practice as a lawyer, although many of them do.

However, even if all the open positions in the courts were filled immediately, there’s still the problem to be solved of the backlog from millions of cases going back decades. As an example, if someone brought in a case to a law office today, 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 get adjudicated.


[Source: An article written by Lourdes Garcia-Navarro for NPR and supplemented by CIE.]

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