The lawyer earning peanuts in the biggest trial of the decade

Prestige public defender was paid 455 euros for 10 months’ work on engineer’s case

Public defender Paulino Pérez Riveiro.
Public defender Paulino Pérez Riveiro.

Paulino Pérez Riveiro has spent 20 years tackling all manner of lawsuits from his office in the small town of Cee, the capital of the Costa da Morte, off which the Prestige sank in 2002.

Little did he imagine, almost a decade later, that a 230,315-page case summary would land with a thud on his desk. Last July, Pérez, who was on duty for court-appointed public defenders, was handed the case of Nykolaos Argyropoulos, one of the principal defendants in the largest lawsuit for environmental crimes ever staged in Spain, in which the public prosecutor is seeking 4.442 billion euros in damages.

Pérez spent the entire summer submerged in 80,000 pages of “fundamental documents” to prepare to present his defense arguments for the chief engineer of the Prestige. Pérez said he is on the list of public defenders “because of the moral obligation to help people with the least amount of resources.” But the defense of Argyropoulos, until the end of the hearing in May 2013, has led Pérez to the brink of “utter ruin.”

His salary for 10 months of work is 455.30 euros. That doesn’t even cover the petrol costs for the 200km daily round-trip from Cee to the A Coruña courthouse.

The prime minister says Spain is not Uganda but you might get a fairer trial there"

All attempts to force the Galician regional government to increase his wages have been in vain. The cost of the trial to the regional coffers is 1.4 million euros but the Xunta has refused to pay a single cent for Pérez’s travails. Under pressure from the 70 lawyers involved in the macro trial and the investigating judge, the regional premier’s office said it “was studying the possibility of making an exception and working on a solution.”

One possible precedent — the only trial in recent Spanish history on the same scale as the Prestige — is the March 11, 2004 bombings case in Madrid. On that occasion, the Justice Ministry reached an agreement with the Spanish Council of Bar Associations to treble the wages of the 20 public defenders working the case, to a maximum of 20,000 euros per year. In Pérez’s view the matter is not just financial, but above all “the constitutional right of every person to a fair defense.”

On Wednesday, which was the second day of the trial, Pérez told the court: “The prime minister says that Spain is not Uganda, but it would be worrying to think that somebody would get a fairer trial in Uganda than in Spain.”

Pérez’s situation also threatens the entire trial, which has taken 10 years to reach court. If he does not receive “a dignified fee” by November 12, he will drop the case. Finding another lawyer to defend Argyropoulos will not be easy. Firstly, the incoming defender would need three months to get to grips with the case, or, Pérez warns, a mistrial might be declared.

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