Freedom of Information

Victory for freedom of information: police must release data on police-appointed lawyers

Freedom of information won in an important case in Hungary at the end of May. A private citizen, József Dankó, wanted to know details about the court-appointed lawyers working in Budapest’s 19th district, but the local police said that compiling the data is a lot of work and wanted to charge 38,000 euros for the service. A Budapest court ruled that the 19th district police are obliged to give the data to the citizen for free.

In Hungary it is not the courts but the police that appoint lawyers when a defendant does not have the money for a private attorney. That is, they are police-appointed lawyers. They are paid by the government.

There are problems with this system: how much can a defendant trust a lawyer who was picked by the policeman investigating him? Can the lawyer be impartial when his income depends on how many times he or she gets picked by the police? And if you were a policeman, who would you pick: the lawyer who will do their best to defend their client, or one who will not make the life of investigators too hard?

There are so many problems with this system that police will no longer be able to appoint the lawyers, according to the new penal code.

József Dankó decided to request the data from the 19th district police because he was informed that the police station is employing only a handful police-appointed lawyers.

József Dankó used Átlátszó’s Freedom of Information Request generator platform to file his request in October 2017. He wanted to know how many times the district employed police-appointed lawyers in 2012-2016, who were the most frequently employed police-appointed lawyers in the district and what share of the business each of them received.

The 19th district police said Dankó needs to pay 38,000 euros for the data because they did not have the data electronically and it would take them too much time to go through the hard copies of all case files. Dankó did not pay but asked us for help.

First, we modified the request and asked for data only for 2016. The police station still wanted to charge him 6500 euros. Dankó then decided to sue the 19th district police. He was represented by Balázs Tóth who works for both the Hungarian Helsinki Commission and Átlátszó.

The first court hearing took place in February 2018, the second in late March 2018. During the hearings it became clear that the police station was not entering the data about police-appointed lawyers into its electronic database nicknamed RoboCop. They were supposed to do so, but they failed to update the database in a proper manner.

On May 24th, the Pest Central District Court ruled that the 19th district police station must provide the data to Dankó for free. The court also ruled that the police station needs to pay the fees for the court proceedings, approximately 580 euros. The decision is not binding and the police station will probably appeal the ruling.

This was not the first court case about police-appointed lawyers. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission in 2008 asked police stations for data on police-appointed lawyers and the result was shocking.

In 19 police districts out of 37 the same police-appointed lawyer defended more than third of the defendants. In seven cases the same lawyer defended more than half of all defendants. There was one lawyer who was assigned 453 cases in a year by police.

Written by Katalin Erdélyi

Hungarian version by Anita Komuves, editing by Clare Humphreys.

You can read the original, Hungarian-language story here.

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