Autonomy as Vocation: Public Administration in Catalunya

Lenkner - Spain - Ciutat de Justicia, L'Hospitalet de LlobregatMy posts from Barcelona, Spain have followed an escalating economic crisis, public protests and the ongoing reforms in public administration and spending that have accompanied them and to which they are a response. The financial crisis has affected each of the seventeen autonomous communities in Spain differently, as each have different economic bases, political regimes, and different powers and competencies negotiated with the central government in Madrid. While the Basque Country has the greatest economic autonomy, Catalunya has pushed for greater control over its legal and criminal justice systems. It is also the only region that administers its own penitentiary system, at considerable expense. Despite Partido Popular calls from Murcia and Castilla-La Mancha to reduce spending on criminal justice by returning some of these responsibilities to the government in Madrid, it is unlikely that all autonomous communities would perceive this kind of change favorably. In fact, former Catalan president Jordi Pujol, in a recent essay, argues that assuming charge of the criminal justice system is central to a practice of ‘autonomy as a vocation’ (Pujol 2008). A good part of my research in Barcelona has worked to develop a better understanding of the evolving criminal justice system in Catalunya, and to become more familiar with the beliefs and obstacles facing practitioners within it.

This week I spent a day ‘de guardía’ with a lawyer from the Illustre Collegí d’Advocats de Barcelona (ICAB), the bar association of the city that also coordinates, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, public defense. Once every two or three months, a lawyer and member of the ICAB will spend a day receiving cases he or she has been referred. To be ‘de guardía’ means that the public defender is present when the accused gives his or her declaration to the police, whether or not that person has been arrested. If the person has been arrested and charged, the lawyer must wait until after the declaration is made to speak with the client. The idea is that the police want to receive a spontaneous statement from the accused, without the intervention of a lawyer. The defendant is read his or her rights, and then has the opportunity to make a declaration to the police or to decline to make a statement, and to give that declaration before a judge. Most people choose the latter option. Lawyers are responsible for several different jurisdictions, so I spent most of the day following a lawyer, who was on a motorcycle, to different police stations after hearing one declaration at the Ciutat de Justicia (literally ‘City of Justice’), where all of the city’s courts are located. The photo above shows the enormous complex of buildings of which the Ciutat de Justícia is composed (Madrid has proposed a similar complex). I did not have a wide-angle lens with me that day, so the photo is a view of the buildings from the highway in L’Hospitalet, a separate municipality on the edge of the city, with industrial parks and substantial public housing. The tall building the third from the right is one of the main buildings of the City of Justice.

The cases we observed were difficult; the first involving falsification of documents and impersonation, a case in which a non-Spanish national had claimed two children, who were relatives but not his children, as his own. It was likely that police had seen the boys working in a store in the city, and had filed a claim against the man and his wife. The second case involved a client who was part of an operation that established imaginary companies, contracted persons for six months or more, so that those persons could then receive unemployment from the government. The last case involved a man who had been involved in a bar fight, and had a claim filed against him for injuring another person. Claims by immigrants, around a third of Catalunya’s population, motivated by poverty and hardship are frequent in the legal system in Barcelona, exacerbated by the crisis.

Pujol, J. 2008. What is Autonomy?

Posted by Johanna Lenkner — PhD Candidate in Anthropology at NYU

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