Three lawyers earned as much as their 511 colleagues

Three lawyers earned as much as their 511 colleagues

Organisation: Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) (Serbia)

Publication Date: 04/10/2017

Size of team/newsroom:small


Judiciary should be the backbone of democracy and stability in a country. In Serbia, corruption is infiltrated into the entire system, including judiciary. As CINS is constantly attempting to help improve the Serbian judiciary, in 2016 we investigated its effectiveness and fairness regarding the appointment of duty counsels. For many years there has been a debate between the Bar Association of Serbia and the court system employees, each group accusing the other for irregularities in recruiting duty counsels appointed by police and courts to accused citizens that cannot afford defense. Duty counsels are being paid from state budget, therefore it was in the interest of citizens to investigate these appointments. Most of the lawyers turned out to be subject to injustice of such system, while only a few benefit from it. The best way to approach irregularities in this system was to collect data and present it in a user-friendly format. We published a database of duty counsels’ appointments with more than 25.000 entries that show how many times each lawyer was appointed in the four years between 2012 and 2016 on the territory of the capital of Belgrade, by which institution, and how much each lawyer earned. All information was analyzed and published as an investigative story and a database – both showing there were drastic differences in the number of appointments and earnings among lawyers, in favor of a smaller number of them. Also, the database revealed and proved the fact that such way of appointing duty counsels do not ensure obtaining of adequate legal assistance, i.e. in some cases lawyers with a particular specialization are appointed for cases they have no expertise for. We gathered data from courts, police and prosecutors’ offices, which lasted almost two years, including complaints to the FOIA Commissioner (processing data lasted 7 months). It turned out that there is a whole set of problems in collecting the data, including lack of it, poorly kept records of appointments and payments - including hand-written records, data destroyed in major floods in Serbia 2014, and a case of a few dozen lawyers with the same names and surnames – that left us with little ability to distinguish among them, which we managed to do. We also found a number of mistakes in police records used for placing the calls to lawyers in order to appoint them, which was a great task to correct. Because prosecutors’ offices do not have proper registries on appointing duty counsels, these were left out of the database. Since duty counsels are paid from the state budget, it is in the interest of citizens to know if there is malfeasance in spending their money. The database is particularly useful for lawyers as it reveals the problems in the system affecting them and their clients. This story and database are included in the series of articles for which CINS is nominated for the European Press Prize 2017 in the investigative reporting category.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

Since it turned out that most institutions keep records using different methodology, it was not possible to analyze all the data on the national level. Therefore, the focus was on the police and courts in Belgrade. After two complaints were submitted to the Commissioner to provide data, we received information on appointments, but not the individual earnings of lawyers, so it took significant effort to gather all the information. Our investigation proved the existence of a different practice in which order is not being respected and some attorneys are highly privileged. Out of 1,617 lawyers who acted as duty counsels in the capital of Belgrade from 2012 through the end of 2015, three lawyers earned as much as their 511 colleagues together. Five attorneys had more than 100 cases each while their colleagues were engaged far less frequently - 321 counsels were appointed only once or twice. Although it was a long-standing problem that affects the efficiency of the judiciary, and contributes to the spread of corruption, until the database was published the public did not have enough information. This research is the first of its kind in Serbia, and it exposed the negligence of the Bar Association and judicial institutions and caused a lot of public attention. We received calls by lawyers complaining how this problem affected them, and they wished to share their testimonies and experiences. The story resulting from the database and the database had grand success and many reactions, both by the experts and citizens. The story was republished by more than 25 media outlets. Representatives of some institutions said they would work on improving their data registries and appointment procedures, while many lawyers noted that CINS exposed the problem they were facing for years. The Belgrade Higher Court, which navigates the toughest cases and pays the highest fees to duty counsels, announced a change in the mode of keeping records of payments for these lawyers.

Technologies used for this project:

After filing around 50 requests for information (in accordance with the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance), followed by several complaints to the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, a large number of telephone conversations and meetings in judicial institutions, CINS received a smaller part of the data in electronic format, and a majority in thousands of printed pages; some of the data was even hand-written. All of it was sorted out in a different way, so the documentation needed to be reorganized, checked and enlisted into one database. Among these documents were erroneously spelled names and surnames of lawyers, different people with same names and other issues. Once the data was put in an Excel file, the whole newsroom went three times through more than 25,000 entries to clean the data. Every entry – each lawyer’s name, date, institution of appointment and amount of earning, went through the process of fact-checking. Reading, interpretation and input of data took about five months, followed by two months of fact-checking and 3 months of programming (Technologies which were used: php, mysql, jquery, html5, css3, jquery datatables plug in).
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