Before the Public Defense Office was established, the majority of defendants in criminal proceedings in Israel did not have access to legal representation. Most of the minors who stood trial in juvenile courts were not represented, nor were the majority of detainees brought before the magistrate courts for extension of remand. Only one in fifty detainees was visited by an attorney during the period of remand. Defendants who were represented by appointed counsel did not always receive adequate representation.
The Public Defense was founded in order to guarantee high quality and professional legal assistance for defendants and detainees without means. It replaced the former system in which justices and court secretaries appointed defense attorneys to represent needy defendants without the ability to monitor the quality of service that these attorneys provided. Thus, the legislator decided to create a public, nationwide entity that would be capable of supervising the defense attorneys that work on its behalf, and have the authority to monitor the quality of service that these attorneys provide.
The goal of the Public Defense is to raise the quality of criminal representation in Israel by offering professional and high-quality legal representation for all clients of the public defense system. Its goals are to promote the best interests and protect the rights of all suspects, defendants and convicts in Israel.
For a detailed summary of the main achievements of the Public Defense in its first 20 years see a trasnlated segment dedicated to the history of the Public Defense that was included in its Annual Report for 2015.
The Public Defense provides legal representation throughout the entire criminal proceedings, from consultation for suspects during police interrogation; to representation in detention hearings, including petitions to detain a suspect until the end of proceedings; representation during criminal trials and sentencing, filing appeals and leaves to appeal, applications for reviews and retrials; representing prisoners before parole committees; and representing mentally ill, forcibly hospitalized patients before psychiatric evaluation committees.
The Public Defense Act lists several instances for appointing public defense attorneys. A person shall be entitled to public representation when the legal proceedings can have severe and crucial impacts on that person's life (e.g. extended detention until the end of procedures, imprisonment, psychiatric hospitalization, extradition). A person that suffers from personal disabilities that inhibit the basic ability to defend himself shall be entitled to public representation as well (e.g. mute, blind or deaf defendants; those who are mentally ill or suffer from cognitive disorders; minors). Untypical evidence or criminal legal proceedings in trial also entitle representation by a public defender (e.g. pre-trials, video testimony, hearsay submitted by a special investigator, etc.). Public defense shall also be provided for defendants who are unable to afford private representation or when other circumstances require the nomination of a public defender in order to guarantee fair proceedings and prevention of injustice. Section 18 of the Public Defense Act lists all grounds for appointing a public defense attorney.
The Public Defense represnts in cases that involve the various district attorneys, including the taxation and finance attorney office; the state attorney departments – i.e. the criminal department, the department for international affairs, and the financial department; Israel Police prosecution divisions and dozens of police investigation units; VAT, income tax and customs prosecution units; municipal planning and construction, business licensing and other prosecution units in municipalities; the Israel Prison Service; hospitals for the mentally ill; community services such as probation, youth protection centers, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, domestic violence centers, municipal social service and welfare agencies, prisoner rehabilitation authorities and more.
In addition to representing clients, the Public Defense protects and preserves the interests of defendants and suspects through intensive intervention in legislative processes in various forums and by submitting expert legal opinions as amicus curiae. As the administrative authority responsible for upholding the rights of suspects and defendants and as a key expert in this field, the Public Defense is called upon to present its institutional stance on legislative proceedings and judicial questions on fundamental issues of criminal law, criminal proceedings, evidence law, prevention and penalty, penitentiary facilities, and law enforcement authorities. The Public Defense works with the consultation and legislation departments at the Ministry of Justice, the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, courts of law, the Ministry of Public Security, the Israel Bar Association, and human rights organizations.
From an administrative perspective, the Public Defense is an integral part of the Ministry of Justice, though from the professional perspective, it operates as an independent entity loyal to its clients, as has been defined explicitly by law. The Public Defense is supervised, by law, by the Public Defense Committee that consists of the Minister of Justice (chairperson), a former Supreme Court justice, an expert on criminal law, a lawyer appointed by the Israel Bar Association, and a lawyer appointed by the Minister of Justice and approved by the President of the Bar Association.
The Public Defense is combined of an internal staff of government-employed attorneys, and an external staff of attorneys at private firms. The services provided to the public are therefore outsourced to external parties, but the administrative and professional aspects of these extrenal attorney's work are still supervised by the state.
The Public Defense is headed by the National Public Defender who directs the public district defense attorneys and the Public District Defenders, as well as the national public defense unit.
The National Public Defense Office includes the National Public Defender's office, an administrative department, and a department for Supreme Court cases. In addition, the National Public Defense Office coordinates broad-scale issues related to youth, detention, parole committees, psychiatry, information systems and more.
The Public Defense consists of six districts: Tel Aviv, Central Israel, Jerusalem, Southern Israel, Haifa and Northern Israel. Each district office is headed by a public district defense attorney who manages the office and is responsible for all legal representation provided in that district.The internal public defense staff includes approximately 220 employees, including both legal and administrative staff.
The lawyers that comprise the internal staff have several responsibilities. These include ongoing professional supervision of the legal representation provided by external attorneys, as well as coordinating and managing other aspects of public defense in their districts (e.g. detention, representing minors, mentally ill defendants and prisoners, appeals, training and education, approving legal fees, etc.). In addition, they directly represent clients in the various courts of law.
The external public defenders staff includes some 800 attorneys who are employed in various ways: payment per legal activity, fixed payment per case, fixed payment per day of court appearances, payment per on-call hours at court, and payment per hour.
The workload at the Public Defense Office has continued to grow steadily since it was first established.
The Public Defense represents over 50% of all defendants in criminal cases tried in district courts. In addition, it defends a nation-wide average of nearly 60% of defendants in criminal cases tried in magistrate courts. In juvenile courts, representation rates are even higher, reaching approximately 80% of criminal cases. The Public Defense represents some 70% of detainees brought before the court for extension of remand for investigation purposes, and some 80% of defendants for whom detention is requested until the end of procedures.