Josue de Oliveira Rios, the head lawyer of Brazil's most important consumer defense organization, is pioneering new ways of organizing legal representation with most of the work being done by clients, not simply on their behalf.
A nova ideia
Josue's legal colleagues often ask him how many lawyers work at IDEC, so impressed are they by the group's capacity. Inevitably, they are amazed to discover that only four lawyers and four interns comprise the core staff.A sharp sense of both what areas offer the greatest social opportunities and of legal strategy clearly help. Josue picks his cases carefully. He looks especially for consumer issues that are ripe and those that affect a great number of people. He seeks always to have at least ten IDEC members serve as individual complainants before he will start a case.The key to Josue's ability to press a significant number of major cases all at once with only a small staff is how he engages his clients as central actors. They are not passive beneficiaries; rather, they do most of the work and are involved at each step and in each decision. They emerge from each case as trained and confident users of the legal system as well as better-protected consumers in the marketplace.The complainants meet regularly to discuss the case. They get involved in the research, learn the mechanisms and language of the legal system, and organize collateral campaigns to mobilize public opinion.Josue's approach works. For example, when the government suddenly froze the public's bank accounts through a March 15, 1990 Presidential decree, IDEC immediately mobilized 500 complainants to challenge the constitutionality of this action. With nothing in the constitution directly defining the legality of such a move, the issue is being decided in the courts. IDEC divided its 500 complainants into ten cases, hoping that at least one would gain a critical, precedent-setting success. In fact, the IDEC suits have already brought important gains for suddenly cash-stripped savers.In other cases, IDEC is representing a group of citizens who are suing the federal government for reimbursements of a temporary sales tax on gasoline that is promised in the law. Another suit seeks to oblige the state to regulate the use of a carcinogenic hormone that is widely used to fatten livestock.All of these legal services are provided pro bono to citizens who become members of IDEC. There are now approximately 2,000 members, each paying an annual fee of about U.S. $20.
Consumer fraud and injustice are as common in Brazil as in other national marketplaces; avenues for legal recourse, however, are far less established. Not until 1988 could public civil suits be brought against the government, and even then the complainants had to be represented by an organization. IDEC, for instance, could only represent their members in the legal suits to unfreeze bank accounts.The new consumer code of 1991, which IDEC played a leading part in designing and getting through the legislature, does allow for non-member class-action suits. However, that and other reforms still leave a severe obstacle to consumer initiative: namely the length and cost of pursuing individual suits in Brazil's very slow, inefficient legal system. Josue's successful use of his client complainants as key actors in the work of bringing cases goes a long way towards making more bearable the burden to citizens' organizations with limited resources.
When a consumer complaint is brought to IDEC's attention (either through the press or by reports from IDEC associates), Josue's team evaluates it for its likely scope of impact and also defines the actions needed.If at least 10 individuals' rights have been infringed, then Josue's department sets up a schedule of meetings, which they advertise through IDEC bulletins and their telephone call-in recordings. At these meetings, Josue explains his concept of total involvement and shows the participants the effect this type of mobilization has had in previous cases.The complainants then form committees, schedule regular meetings, and distribute tasks. Because they are getting their legal work done for free, they are generally enthusiastically willing to volunteer their time for committee work. Josue says that the consumer's initial timidity is quickly transformed into engagement as they begin to master the issues.Because the rulings almost always affect a larger segment of the population than those directly represented by IDEC, one of most important and ambitions dimensions of IDEC's work is to mobilize public opinion on the issue. This is usually the responsibility of the group of complainants, leaving IDEC's staff to deal with more technical matters and to organize more cases. For example, IDEC brought a suit against the Sao Paulo State telephone company on behalf of a group of 300 citizens to install phones they had paid for long ago. Several hundred thousand customers, not members of IDEC, were similarly affected by the slow service. One consumer involved in the suit produced T-shirts and decals demanding, "Where's my phone?" The slogan caught on city-wide. News of IDEC's cases appear regularly in local and national press, in significant part thanks to the efforts of the complainants.
Josue, 35, was born in a small town in the northeastern state of Bahia. His parents were small farmers who directed all their efforts to educating their children. Josue made good on their investment, concluding his studies at one of the country's best law schools in Sao Paulo.While in university, Josue worked as a volunteer in several educational and support organizations for the poor. He speaks of the frustration he felt then at the ignorance of a large part of the population with regard to their constitutional rights. He felt very directly the need to translate the language and rituals of the law so that ordinary people, who need the law's protection in so many ways, can understand it and learn to use it easily.After graduating from law school, Josue turned increasingly to offering free services to the poor. Much of his practice involved consumer complaints such as dubious land titles sold to the poor. When he was invited to take over the legal department of the first state consumer protection agency, Josue felt he could broaden his reach. Gradually he developed his legal strategy and began to evolve his new approaches to involving his clients as protagonists, an approach that would not only vindicate their complaint but also make them legally literate as well. It was at this time that he struck up the partnership with Marilena Lazzarini (also an Ashoka Fellow) that ultimately led to IDEC.Josue is the author of several humorous short parables that describe legal situations and procedures. These are just another expression of his interest in making the law accessible to the layman as an essential step towards democracy and full citizenship.