Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
Miguel Pressburger is a lawyer who suffered for his early public interest advocacy and who has recently emerged from his work for the Catholic Church to create the Instituto Apoio Juridico Popular (AJUP). Through it he is trying to give legal education a conscience, encourage concerned law graduates to enter public law and the entry rungs of the judiciary, and build the institutional capacity of public service law practice.
Miguel Pressburger began public advocacy in 1960 when he defended rural communities affected by the construction of Brasilia. This work ultimately led to a confrontation with the military dictatorship and prison. In 1976 he started 10 years working for the Comissao Patoral da Terra (the church's arm for grassroots land issues) helping build local groups of small farmers, working with agrarian reform and other land issues, and also training young lawyers. During this period he gradually built up a network of rural "popular lawyers." Miguel Pressburger is well known and respected, both as a caring counselor and an innovator who has created initiatives such as The Tribunal Nacional dos Crimes do Latifundio (National Tribunal for Land Tenancy Crimes) that gets together twice a year with the presence of prominent national figures, e.g. to study the murders of lawyers, peasants and extension workers. Another example: his participation in the redirection of the Associacao dos Advogados Rurais da Bahia (Rural Lawyers Association in the state of Bahia).
Miguel left the church to start AJUP so that he could help bring the law as q whole to life and public relevance. This is long term work along a number of different dimensions. First, Miguel is encouraging training and helping young lawyers develop first a sense of the profession's special public responsibility and then practical paths for some to take up public law directly. He, for example, regularly organizes sessions with the law students' association regarding public law and the public policy implications of the law; helps place recent graduates in public law apprenticeships; encourages committed young lawyers to enter the bottom rungs of the judiciary; and works at building up the substance and institutions of public law, important both in itself and as a means of reinforcing the commitment, effectiveness, and practical security of those who do work in the field. For example, he is now helping the Central Unica de Travalhadores (the union federation representing 60 percent of Brazil's union workers build a legal department. Miguel also is working directly and through encouraging coordinated, sustained work by those working at public law to make the law more responsive to public needs and the poor. For example, he recently used his expertise in rural land law and his network of lawyers in the field to help a potentially important environmental and land use case in the Grande Carajas iron mining region where the forest and its peoples are being devastated by the production of coke for mushrooming local pig iron production.
Despite the large number of lawyers in Brazil, very few practice law outside the large cities and even fewer are involved in public service law. The long period of military dictatorship in Brazil made public service law a particularly dangerous activity. The lack of social debate prevented not only public support for such activities but also the development of a generation of public service lawyers. As a result, today public service lawyers in Brazil are not only few but also spread out and unconnected with few support mechanisms (information, training, appropriate materials, etc.). To lawyers of conscience the profession is in crisis. The bar and the courts seem irrelevant to the country's pressing problems. The diploma mills and even the recognized law schools do not provide quality education, let alone concern for or insight into public issues. The smell of influence over judicial career paths, starting at the lowest entry levels.