The Costa Rican Public Defender’s Office doesn’t keep official statistics on the number of cases assigned to each of its attorneys.
This gap in information is important, as several academics, judges and former public defenders believe the number of cases handled by each public defender could be linked to poor results when compared to those of private attorneys.
The lack of data also shows that the assignment of cases by the Public Defender’s Office is not based on technical criteria.
This reality is even more relevant given the analysis by Univision Data, which shows that in Costa Rica, defendants represented by public attorneys in criminal cases, for certain offenses, are more likely to be convicted than if they had private lawyers.
In Costa Rica, those who can’t afford an attorney are up to 25% more likely to be convicted. In 2015, the country spent $56.7 million (triple the amount spent 10 years ago) for a team of 273 public attorneys to work full-time on the criminal defense of people with limited resources.
Public Defender’s Office Director Marta Iris Muñoz declined to be interviewed for this report. The only official at the agency who would speak to Univision Noticias and Semanario Universidad, a Costa Rican newspaper that collaborated on the investigation, was assistant director Alejandro Rojas. He resigned weeks later, citing personal reasons.
The Public Defender’s Office, Rojas said, only compiles an average number of cases assigned to each position. But the agency can’t say how many cases each person handles, because attorneys rotate throughout different roles.
Costa Rica’s judicial branch also doesn’t keep statistics on the type of defense attorneys used – either public or private – for each case. That information could be useful to compare the performance of public and private defenders. According to Rojas, the Superior Council of Costa Rica's judicial branch ordered the courts to keep a registry of this information, but the order was ignored.
While Latin American countries usually do not compile this type of information, several investigations in the United States have identified a link between excessive caseload management by public defenders and negative results in their work.
A 2004 investigation published in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law concluded that while workload is not the primary factor that explains performance by public defenders, it does have significant influence.
Another study by the universities of Texas and Arizona found that “if funding was expanded to reduce caseload pressure, public defenders may be even better situated to ensure fair and just outcomes for their clients.” A Harvard study reached similar conclusions.
Rojas agrees that excessive caseloads could explain the disadvantage that public defense attorneys have compared to private ones.
While Univision’s study is exclusively based on data from one metropolitan area of Costa Rica, it’s possible that this trend of excessive cases is equal or worse in rural areas, as indicated by official data.
From 2011 to 2015, the three places with the highest average number of active public defense cases were located in rural areas: Upala, in the north, with 583; Bribrí in the Atlantic region, with 568; and Turrialba, east of the Central Valley, with 508.
Upala’s situation is particularly complicated. A single government attorney is responsible for all of the city’s criminal public defense cases, with occasional help from a specialized attorney who works only on cases involving violence against women.
Science is lacking
Consulted by the authors of this report, the Costa Rican Public Defender’s Office said the official limit for each attorney – between 180 and 200 cases annually – is not based on targeted studies, but rather on the attorney’s experience and willingness.
But these numbers conflict with the results of Univision Noticias’ investigation and interviews with former public defenders. In one of those interviews, Federico Campos Calderón said that as a former public defender for 10 years, he processed an average of about 400 cases a year. As a private attorney, he now works on about 150 cases annually.
“Public defenders are at trial or in hearings all day. That prevents them from doing desk work to carefully study each case,” Campos said.
There have been efforts to change the Public Defender’s Office’s maximum caseload policy. In 2009, a group of public defense attorneys proposed that the number of cases each attorney handles be reduced to a maximum of 100 per year. But a judicial branch spokeswoman said the change was never implemented.
If these public defenders are correct, Costa Rica’s problem with case overload would be grave – especially since the number of active cases handled by each public defender is in the ballpark of 300, according to a Univision analysis of judicial branch data.