Until 10 days ago, a penniless criminal suspect arrested in Istanbul could turn to one of 4,000 bar-appointed lawyers for legal aid, with the fees paid for by the state. But now, indigent suspects are on their own.
The disappearance of free legal services comes amid a dispute between lawyers and various government agencies, including the Finance Ministry, which has sought to retroactively tax the money paid to lawyers by the state. In the shell-game-like dispute over the money trail from government to lawyers, payments began drying up some months ago in various court districts, and not for the first time. When the Finance Ministry moved two weeks ago to tax last year’s payments, it was the last straw for lawyers, leading them to stop providing the free services.
"It was first in 1992 that the poor had the right to benefit from free attorneys; after that, the greatest reason for the end of torture in prisons, and especially at police stations, was our colleagues. I am afraid we will experience a return to the past," said Turgay Demirci, an administrative board member of the Istanbul Bar, which is responsible for bar-appointed attorneys.
"The bar-appointed-attorney system is a legal structure to defend the rights of the poor against the state. Where a lawyer cannot enter, rights are violated inevitably," said Halil İbrahim Erdoğan, the lawyer responsible for the Bakırköy district. Attorneys who spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review said the current system prevents the full implementation of this right.
The issue is not a new one. Two years ago lawyers in Istanbul stopped providing services when they were unable to get their fees from the state. The issue seems more complicated this time.
One of the problems lawyers mentioned was the Finance Ministry’s attempt to retroactively tax the money the attorneys are paid for the expenses they incur by working on a case.
These expenses include transportation to the court, prison or police station; photocopy expenses, since the lawyers need to make a copy of the case file; and even the cloakroom fee they pay in courthouses.
Lawyers working under the relevant regulation are obliged to use common transit means to reach the suspect; consequently, the amount that would be paid to lawyers for transportation was determined to be 1.5 Turkish Liras Ğ the amount of a typical bus or subway fare Ğ for Istanbul.
"Istanbul is not like a small Anatolian city, in which there is only one courthouse. Even the cloakroom fee is an expense that you pay only in Istanbul," said Erdoğan, whose district is the largest in the city, with 2,000 bar-appointed lawyers. Lawyers and chief prosecutors verbally agreed in a meeting that lawyers in Istanbul would be paid 50 liras for the expenses of each case, not counting the attorney fee.
"Think that each case lasts around three years and you can understand what lawyers spend from their own pockets," said Demirci. "A lawyer appointed to the Ergenekon case in Silivri [a district some 60 kilometers away from central Istanbul] would receive the same amount, but what common transportation can you take from, for instance, Şişli to Silivri?"
The last straw came 15 days ago when the lawyers were ordered to pay taxes on the expense payments they received last year. "Four thousand lawyers in Istanbul serving as state-appointed defense attorneys are aggrieved," said Muammer Aydın, the head of the Istanbul Bar. "It is not only about lawyers. We believe that it is an attitude against our profession."
The bar plans to open a lawsuit against the tax order, but Aydın said the issue should be resolved without a court case because it is so easy to find a solution with a legal amendment.