Within a period of four years, Predrag Šekara defended 362 people in his capacity as duty counsel. According to the data provided by the courts and the police, he is the most frequently appointed lawyer in the territory of Belgrade. From the beginning of 2012 until the end of 2015 he earned almost 2.5 million Serbian dinars by doing this type of attorney jobs.
Although having the largest number of appointments, Šekara is not the best paid Belgrade duty counsel. Through a state funded defence work, his colleague Goran Jovandić earned approximately 14.7 million dinars during the same period of time.
According to what Jovandić told the journalists of the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS), the amount earned was considerably smaller, although he produced no evidence to support this statement.
As per levels of their income as duty counsels, Dragomir Mrdalj with the income of almost 9.7 million dinars and Nemanja Govedarica, with the income of more than 6.9 million dinars, are the next on this list.
Duty counsels are appointed by courts, prosecutor’s offices and police, while the state pays them for their work. These institutions should be recruiting defence counsels as per order given in the list of lawyers of a competent bar association – in this case the Bar Association of Belgrade. CINS investigation shows employment of a different practice.
Institutions from which CINS requested data
For over a year, the CINS collected data on all appointments and earnings of lawyers in the territory of Belgrade, for the period starting with 2012 through the end of 2015. Data was supplied by the First, Second and Third Basic Court, as well as the Police Directorate for the City of Belgrade. Data on the appointment of lawyers in the Obrenovac Police Station relate only to 2015 as the documents relating to prior periods were destroyed in the 2014 floods. The Basic Courts in Lazarevac, Mladenovac and Obrenovac were founded at the end of 2013 after the judicial reform, and have data on duty counsels starting with 2014.
The Higher Court submitted data on appointments for 2014 and 2015, and they responded that prior to 2014 no electronic records were kept, and that they cannot separate earnings from other expenses on these grounds.
Data from the basic prosecutor’s offices are not in the CINS data base, although they also appoint duty counsels as of October 2013, when prosecutor’s office investigation was introduced instead of court investigation. Most prosecutor’s offices responded that they don’t have reliable records on the appointing of duty counsels, and that they cannot separate their earnings from other payments made.
For more than a year, the CINS journalists have been gathering data from Belgrade courts and police on duty counsel defences, for the period between 2012 and 2015. Based on the information obtained, a database including the appointments of and the earnings for 1,617 lawyers has been produced and you can search it HERE. Supreme prosecutor’s office and the majority of basic prosecutor’s offices in Belgrade do not keep separate records on duty counsel defences, therefore their answers have not been included either in the database or in this story.
There are significant differences in the frequency of appointments of duty counsels. Had they been appointed in due order, each one out of 1,617 lawyers would have had nine or 10 such cases. In practice, however, only one third of them – namely 536 duty counsels were appointed 10 times or more. The others defended clients less frequently, while 321 counsels were appointed only once or twice in the course of a four-year period. As opposed to this, five most frequently appointed attorneys had more than 100 cases each.
Regardless of the fact whether they have already been paid or are yet to be paid, 88 lawyers have earned over one million dinars each, however only three of them earning more than six million dinars. These three lawyers together gained earnings of almost 31.3 million dinars, which is the amount earned by their 511 colleagues.
The CINS contacted the most frequently appointed and the highest paid attorneys. Those of them who agreed to talk said that they had accepted the engagements offered by the institutions because the other lawyers did not want to.
Their colleagues having a significantly smaller number of duty counsel defences explain that things are different in practice.
Within a four-year period, Željko Simić was a duty counsel 19 times, earning somewhat more than one million dinars. He said he used to accept these jobs every time he was in Belgrade. He is not satisfied with how this system works, as the order is not being respected: “We expect to be called when it is our turn and we also expect to receive the money on time“.
Omer Ćehović, a lawyer and President of the Association for Rule of Law and Social Justice, believes to have been called only when nobody else wanted to do the job – only three times in the course of the last 10 years. The first time they called him at night, the second time he was supposed to cover duty hours from Friday evening until Saturday morning, while the last time they called him was prior to Serbia – USA basketball finals at the Olympic Games this year.
According to Slobodan Šoškić, President of Belgrade Bar Association, it is on purpose that the lawyers are engaged without following due order, while the payments are also being arranged: “If you stick to the order, those enormous earnings for duty counsel defences can never be made by a single lawyer“.
However, according to his words, the bar association does not have the capacity to solve these problems which should actually be solved by those appointing the lawyers.
Called by courts and police stations because they lived close by
For the purposes of legal hearing, Criminal Procedure Code binds the institutions to assign duty counsels to arrested and detained persons. Those charged by prosecutor’s offices and courts for the crimes punishable by imprisonment for eight years or more (grand larcenies, rapes, murders, serious abuse of official authority, etc) must have defence counsels.
If you stick to the order, those enormous earnings for duty counsel defences can never be made by a single lawyer.
Slobodan Šoškić, President of Belgrade Bar Association
Police and judicial institutions call those attorneys listed in the lawyers’ directory who have applied for duty counsel positions, this directory being submitted by the bar association. The attorneys are listed in alphabetical order and should be called accordingly.
With regard to other institutions for which the CINS has obtained the data, Ministry of Internal Affairs leads in the number of appointments (6,151 lawyers) and also in the amounts of the fees paid for duty counsel defences (164.4 million dinars).
At the police station in the suburban settlement of Grocka, Predrag Šekara was appointed duty counsel in 343 out of 362 such cases he overall had. He used to represent as many as four arrested people in a single day in Belgrade. He did not want to answer the questions of the CINS journalists to explain this number of appointments.
According to the number of duty counsel defences, spouses Milorad and Snežana Matejić won the second, namely the fourth place. Milorad was appointed 259 times, of which 170 cases took place at the police station in Barajevo. In her capacity as duty counsel, Snežana had 130 defences, also mostly in Barajevo.
Milorad Matejić says that the two of them are the only ones who agree to come to the police station in Barajevo and defend the detained.
“If the police stop working, it means that we have lost everything. Having in mind that I also serve as a lawyer for the folks (…) people are addressing me and it is my wish to put in more effort for my native village“, explains Matejić, adding that he used to get up at two or three o’clock in the morning to do the job.
Within a total of 259 appointments in Barajevo during a four-year period, the Matejić family had 251 appointments.
In their letter to the CINS, the representatives of this police station said that, in order to be efficient and observe the time limits prescribed by law, they used to cooperate with a limited number of lawyers. Having in mind that Barajevo is far from Belgrade, few attorneys wanted to defend clients in this suburban settlement.
In the course of a four-year period Milica Vlahović had 139 cases as duty counsel, 114 of them at the police station in Lazarevac – vis a vis her lawyer’s office.
“Nobody wanted to go during the night, they would come to my place and beg me to come to the police station as the hearing cannot be finished without a lawyer (…) I was literally doing them a favour“, says Vlahović.
Srećko Kosanović, professor at the Union University Faculty of Law, says that it is not a good solution to appoint attorneys living in a specific area. They may be in the neighbourhood and may be able to come in cases of emergency, but not all the cases are like that. He adds that, when applying to be duty counsels, the lawyers have accepted this type of commitment, aware that there is a unique list for the entire city. Therefore, it is possible that some of them do want to go to Barajevo and can get there in a rather short period of time.
I would always come very quickly
All the lawyers for whom the CINS gathered data earned a total of 446.8 million dinars, although some of this income relates to defences prior to 2012. In the past, the State was slow in paying duty counsels, sometimes these payments were years overdue, which is why many of them filed lawsuits.
This data does not include data of the Higher Court which did not provide information on individual earnings. However, they did provide the aggregate amount – during four years, they paid duty counsels almost 682.5 million dinars, more than all the other institutions together. Due to the severity of the criminal offences it prosecutes, the Higher Court pays higher lawyer fees than the other institutions.
The rate according to which state appointed lawyer’s fees are calculated is 50% lower than the usual lawyer’s rates in criminal proceedings. Lawyer’s fees are payable after concluding representation duties.
Dragomir Mrdalj is the second highest paid attorney, and the fifth most frequently appointed attorney. He lives near the Palace of Justice, the seat of several Belgrade prosecutor’s offices and courts – including the First Basic Court. Of the total of 119 duty counsel duties performed, Mrdalj was appointed in this court 67 times, and in the course of 2013 in some instances he was called to court several times during one day. The Court justified this with there being an immediate need for a defence counsel as the hearing was in progress, and in several of these cases he was engaged because “he was already in the building”.
Mrdalj explains that he was frequently called to court because he lives close by and because he had no problem with acting in his capacity even at night, regardless of whether it was raining or snowing: “I was someone who was just starting out and I never refused anything. I was called by the court administration probably because they knew that they could count on me. (…) I would always come very quickly”.
He adds that as a young lawyer (he is 37 now) he asked the courts to appoint him duty counsel in order to gain experience.
Željko Simić is only two years older than Mrdalj, but he had far less duty counsel defences – of the total of 19, five were before the First Basic Court. The differences in appointment of lawyers are greater in this court than in the other two Belgrade Basic Courts.
Ivana Ramić, a judge and spokesperson of the First Basic Court in Belgrade, says that it is possible that some attorneys get the impression that they are overlooked, but that fact of the matter is that they couldn’t be reached because the court doesn’t always have up-to-date lawyer contact information. She adds that in some cases the court retains the defence counsel appointed by the prosecutor’s office during the investigation proceedings as they are acquainted with the case from the beginning.
Calling lawyers to court in order has its flaws
Even if lawyers were called by the alphabetic order, such a system is not ideal, said some of the people CINS talked to. If the suspect is being prosecuted for murder, and the next on the list is a lawyer specializing in theft, the suspect might be at a disadvantage.
„You wind up with a lawyer who has little knowledge of the matter, with no experience, no insight into the specific field of criminal activity. (…) The interest to ensure an efficient defence surpasses the need to blindly respect the order of call “, said President of the Bar Association of Belgrade Slobodan Šoškić.
Judge Ivana Ramić explains that such circumstances could be damaging to suspects, but this is something the Bar Association should look into, as the courts have no insight into the field of specialization of each attorney.
Some of the people the CINS talked to state that the system is now a little better regulated than it was before. Nevertheless, Željko Simić says that regulations should be amended as the same problems persist for years.
Professor Srećko Kosanović proposes as a solution maintaining a central register from which lawyers would be called, or at least a follow-up of appointments and payments. Another option is to have the State employ a small number of competent attorneys who would be required to respond when called, providing regular income for them.
According to the lawyer Omer Ćehović, rigorous penalties should be introduced for failure to call lawyers by the order.