New Tax Has Public Defenders Up in Arms

The role of the public defender in Russia has never been easy.

During Soviet times they were the last line of defense between desperate citizens and a totalitarian state. Today, the Russian Constitution requires them to act on behalf of defendants in a new democratic state, but the state is providing no funds for them to do so.

Now after a new law was unanimously voted through the State Duma, these lawyers -- many of whom have become impoverished by the free market -- are being forced to pay a much higher tax into the pension fund. A new law has raised the rate of lawyers' tax contribution to the fund from 5 percent to 28 percent.

"We don't comprise the middle class," said lawyer Marina Svetiyelo, who works for the Moscow City Bar on Kuznetsky Most. "Lots of people are not getting legal help because we can't go to the courts. We work very hard -- but it's essentially for free."

At last week's emergency meeting of the Russian Federal Union of Lawyers, public defenders voted to go on strike from March 1 and refuse any more court cases for citizens who cannot pay .

"It's absurd," said Alexei Rogatkin, chairman of the Presidium of the Moscow City Bar. He said, however, that the courts will in fact continue to function because they do not want to stop representing those who need legal help. But they will continue to pressure the government to rescind the tax, he said.

According to Western legal experts, the increased tax rate on lawyers is in line with what attorneys owe the state. "The problem facing the Moscow city bar is comparable to that confronted by many industries in Russia and derives principally from the government's shortage of revenues," said Todd Schafer, an attorney with the Washington D.C. law firm of Hogan & Hartson. "The dispute over increased pension contributions is largely an outgrowth of the government's financial difficulties."

Although the Russian Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to free legal advice, the government has only allocated funds to pay judges and prosecutors.

Even though public defenders were traditionally paid by the state, they were not affiliated with the Communist Party and had a semi-independent status. The government stopped funding their work in 1989 at the height of perestroika. Like most other public servants, Russian lawyers took a big hit when economic reforms began in 1992. Many of them who work for city bars today earn minimal fees -- some average about $5 to $8 per consultation -- barely enough to afford computers or information bases that are necessary in order to keep up with the rapidly changing laws, said Nikolai Gagarin, a partner with Resnik, Gagarin and Partners, one of the top Russian legal firms in Moscow.

The situation in the rest of the country is even worse, he said. Most lawyers toil away in small villages where poverty has hit hard at most of the people.

The poor financial situation of public defenders has helped swell Russia's huge prison population because inmates cannot afford an attorney, making it almost impossible for them to appeal, said Gagarin. "People in the prisons have no money to pay lawyers," he said. "Under the old law, everyone had to work in the corrective labor camps and could afford [a defender] but today they can't."