Portugal’s justice system will be “completely floored” by time pandemic comes to close

Portugal’s justice system – traditionally slow, badly-organised and inexorably favouring the rich – is being brought to its knees by the pandemic.

According to Menezes Leitão, the president of the Bar Association, “by the time this is all over, justice will be completely floored”.

Yes, the system is held together by threads as it is with hundreds of thousands of cases ‘waiting’ sometimes years to reach a courtroom – but the pandemic promises to make everything a great deal worse.

“One has to be aware of this calamitous situation”, says the ‘great-grandson, son and father’ of lawyers.

In a wide-ranging interview published by Diário de Notícias today, Menezes Leitão explains how the first period of lockdown was “chaotic, with 64,000 cases delayed” which led to the collapse of countless trials.

This time round, the Bar Association had hoped courts could somehow ‘soldier on’. But with virus outbreaks ‘multiplying’ by the day and many courtrooms much too cramped to ensure anyone’s ‘safety’, it accepts “there are no conditions” to keep the system going.

That said, the head of the Bar Association is scathing of the Portuguese government, which he accuses of exercising “profound discrimination” against lawyers.

“We have referred to this problem many times. We don’t understand the constant discrimination by the government”, he said. “Whenever the prime minister announces the restriction of a sector, support mechanisms are immediately introduced. But when he announced the closure of the courts, this didn’t happen”.

Magistrates continue to receive a salary, court staff too “but the lawyers have no income. That is what is happening… many lawyers are going through great difficulties. Some only make their money from court work, so by not working, the impact is brutal. 

“It’s serious what is happening in advocacy”, he stressed, “thus we are appealing to the government to establish support for lawyers who have lost their incomes”.

Menezes Leitão’s interview followed reports that the pandemic has also been responsible for seeing Portugal’s ‘fight against corruption’ lose ground. The country has dropped three slots in the ‘Perception of Corruption index’ this year, reverting to levels in 2012 – the year immediately after the fall of Socialist prime minister José Sócrates who has been accused of corruption on a gargantuan scale, and still remains ‘untried by the courts’.

By coincidence, as Menezes Leitão’s interview on Diário de Notícias’ front page today, coincided with a report by tabloid Correio da Manhã on how ‘the crimes of Manuel Pinho (a former minister of the Sócrates’ era) were on the point of lapsing’ (meaning, they will become ‘too old to qualify for prosecution’).

This is an example of what many see as the ‘convenience’ of the dilapidated court system in Portugal for those wealthy enough to keep fighting attempts to get them in front of a judge. If they fight long enough, cases often end up lapsing.

CM’s story today carries an image of Mr Pinho sitting alongside a very contented looking Ricardo Salgado – the former head of BES bank, who is also accused of a massive litany of crimes involving corruption, but has yet to face any of them in court.

Manuel Pinho, says the paper, is accused of having received bribes of around €4.5 million between the years of 2005 (when he was Sócrates’ minister of economy) to 2014. The case against him is blocked by administrative matters, and has been for over a year.

DN’s interview also touched on the fact that Amnesty International has asked the Portuguese government to create a commission to monitor human rights, citing the ‘negative impacts of the pandemic’.

Menezes Leitão agreed that “the country at this time has situations of serious human rights injury, aggravated by the pandemic. 

“More important than the commission would be to avoid certain legislation that can restrict human rights and places doubts about these situations”, he said, citing the elderly as one of the most vulnerable when it comes to harm caused.

“In many cases they were simply locked up in homes, their autonomy to travel disrespected…

“But when I see certain rules, I am very concerned. Like the one that says the person, in order to take a bit of exercise, must carry proof of residency. This is problematic for an elderly person. Many do not even understand it. It is being said that they can be approached by the police and fined between €200 and €1,000. These are people with miserable pensions! This is going beyond what is acceptable in the rule of law…”

The Bar Association president added that he also found troubling the government’s ‘blaming of society’ for the explosion of cases of Covid-19 post-Christmas. 

He said it was “problematic even in terms of social coexistence. The truth is they didn’t even give people an indication of how many people they could have round the table. We even had the President of the Republic talking about how he was going to have various meals with several groups. When we have this – and people see that they are free to go out, travel between counties at that time – and then we have a very serious situation and the result is brutal repression, we may not be taking the right approach”.

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