Norwegian lawyers who serve as state-paid public defenders were refusing to answer calls to duty this week, after years of frustration over relatively low pay. Their protest left five out of seven defendants charged with crimes without a defense attorney present in court on Monday alone.
More defandants were on their own in court on Tuesday and Wednesday, after the Norwegian bar association (Advokatforeningen) launched its protest over members’ pay for legal assistance that’s free for those who can’t afford lawyers. The public defenders now receive NOK 970 (USD 118) an hour from the state, but lawyers claim that hasn’t been adjusted in line with other wage increases since 1999.
Merethe Smith, leader of the bar association, conceded that the public defenders’ “action” resembles a strike, and it was timed to coincide with this week’s state budget conference. “We are taking action to get a better program for free legal assistance,” Smith told newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday. She wants “real negotiations” with the justice ministry, noting that lawyers work as sole-proprietors in Norway but have no negotiating rights regarding the individual public defender jobs they take on.
While their current hourly wage is high in regards to other hourly pay in Norway, it pales in comparison to the fees otherwise charged by many law firms. Among those supporting the public defenders’ protest were celebrity defense attorneys Ellen Holager Andenæs, Geir Lippestad and John Christian Elden.