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Court Is Adjourned in Italy as Lawyers Go on Strike

The labor action, called to protest a proposed overhaul of legal fees, causes even more delays to the nation's slow judicial system.

July 21, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — The judge was there. The prosecutors were there. Even the witness was there. But the defense lawyers were there only to say they wouldn't be.

"I abstain," one said.

"I abstain," said the other, who hadn't even bothered to don the black robe worn by officers of the Italian judiciary.

Court adjourned.

It is strike season here, and lawyers are leading the pack. Hundreds, if not thousands, of legal cases are being pushed back on court dockets, delayed well into the fall and winter because lawyers are refusing to participate in hearings.

Italy's judicial system, glacial in good times, has ground virtually to a halt.

"Italian justice today is a disaster beyond what it has ever been before," said Alessandro Vannucci, a lawyer representing an American art dealer accused of smuggling antiquities.

Vannucci joined the strike with most of his 160,000 colleagues, who are protesting a series of changes proposed by the new center-left government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi. The reforms would allow lawyers to advertise and to change their fee structures so they could claim a percentage of settlements in civil cases. The law also would eliminate a fee minimum.

The Prodi government maintains that the changes would make the legal profession more competitive and conform it to standards prevalent in the European Union. The changes are part of a broader plan aimed at jump-starting the sluggish Italian economy by making various sectors more competitive.

Lawyers complain that only colleagues in big firms would benefit, while those in individual practices, the majority, would be driven out of the market. They want to keep the standardized schedule of fees.

"We don't want to be part of some game," said Valerio Spigarelli, secretary-general of a lawyers association leading the strike.

"We are professionals. We have to be independent. This is about defending the dignity of lawyers."

The two-week strike is scheduled, in this phase at least, to end today.

The same proposed law aimed at spurring competition would deregulate the taxi industry and allow nonprescription drugs to be sold in supermarkets. As a consequence, cabdrivers have been staging periodic wildcat strikes, paralyzing Rome and other Italian cities, and pharmacists in white smocks shut their stores Wednesday and were handing out protest leaflets.

Separately, flight attendants with the national airline, Alitalia, and air traffic controllers are expected to go on strike next week.

As for the lawyers, several interviewed for this article said they did not think the labor action was a particularly effective form of protest.

"The tribunals are practically closed down," said Mario Tonucci, a corporate lawyer. "We are getting no sympathy from the public."

Even without a strike, justice in Italy is slow: A civil trial takes eight years on average, a criminal case five. As of June 30, 2004, about 9 million cases awaited sentencing, and 100,000 others were before the Supreme Court, according to the most recent official statistics available.

Tonucci, who does business with international clients and law firms, favors the new laws because he said they would help him compete in the global marketplace. The strike, he said, is stalling trials by at least six months.

Critics have accused lawyers of choosing which proceedings they boycott to delay trials that aren't going their way. (Not guilty, Spigarelli says.) Under the rules of the strike, lawyers are supposed to refuse all public work, such as hearings, but can continue to meet privately with clients. As a result, they still earn most of their pay.

Legal expert Pietro Ichino, writing in the leading daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, accused the lawyers of protesting in a way that hurt third parties and justice, but not their own pocketbooks: "This is a little like a hunger strike that is suspended when it's time for lunch."

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