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José María Mena: "Professional integrity - prioritizing what is right over what is profitable - is inseparable from the correct application of the law"

"My work as a university lecturer enabled me to maintain an objective, theoretical perspective on legal practice, which is always necessary"

"My work as a university lecturer enabled me to maintain an objective, theoretical perspective on legal practice, which is always necessary"

The book 'De oficio, fiscal' was officially presented in a special event at the University of Barcelona

The book 'De oficio, fiscal' was officially presented in a special event at the University of Barcelona

22/11/2010

José María Mena began his career as a public prosecutor in 1964, working in Tenerife, Lleida and Barcelona, where he combined professional practice with university teaching. He specialized in prosecution of drugs offences in Barcelona and later became Chief Prosecutor of Catalonia, a position he held from 1996 until his retirement in 2006. 

He was actively involved in the creation of the progressive movement Justicia Democrática and later in the work of the Asociación de Fiscales and the Unión Progresista de Fiscales, as well as the international organization European Judges for Democracy and Liberty. He is currently President of the Catalan Association of Democratic Jurists, and in 2010 was awarded the Creu de Sant Jordi ("St. George's Cross", the highest civil distinction in Catalonia).
José María Mena has recently published the book De oficio, fiscal, in which he analyzes what it means to be a public prosecutor today. The book was officially presented in a special event at the University of Barcelona.

You combined your work as a public prosecutor with university teaching. How did your contact with the academic world contribute to your daily work as a legal professional?

 
I began teaching in the Faculty of Law at the University of La Laguna (Tenerife) in 1964, having won a public selection process for the position of associate professor – as I think it was called – in criminal law. When I came to Barcelona I obtained a position at the University of Barcelona as assistant professor in criminal law under Octavio Pérez-Vitoria, who passed away recently. The law permits judges and public prosecutors to engage in other professional activities in certain circumstances, and I continued to combine teaching and legal practice until the workload simply made it unfeasible, when I was appointed Deputy-Chief Prosecutor.
 
My work as a university lecturer enabled me to maintain an objective, theoretical perspective on legal practice, which is always necessary. It also required constant study of legal dogma, which is an essential compliment to theoretical learning – in much the same way that basic gym work is vital to an athlete.
 
Contact with academics not involved in – and often critical of – the legal world was a necessary, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, aspect of my work, and contact with young students brought vitality to the experience. During the period of the dictatorship, our work was carried out under exceptional (although apparently normal at the time) conditions of restricted legal freedom.
 
Have you had the chance to mix with the new generations of jurists and legal professionals? What advice would you give to a young student embarking on a law degree?
 
My relation with the new generations of legal professionals is restricted to the contact I have had with young public prosecutors, which was often somewhat difficult since I was their boss and was more than old enough to be their father. They are generally very well trained and their cultural, civic and ideological outlooks are, for the most part, fairly liberal and not overtly political.
 
I do not think it is useful for me to give advice, not least because young people have an inherent tendency to ignore it. Nevertheless, if a student was obliged to hear my views, I would suggest that there are two things that must be taken into account: first, that their technical, professional training must be continuous and second to none; and second, that professional integrity – prioritizing what is right over what is profitable – is inseparable from the correct application of the law.
 
What specific measures could be effective in preventing the self-interested use of justice in the judicialization of politics?
 
To wipe out the disease that is the judicialization of politics, the first step is for politics to increase its own levels of integrity. It must also abandon its unjust stance on the work of the courts – complimentary when decisions go its way and critical when they do not. This is a problem common to all politicians, whatever side of the political divide they are on.
 
In the administration of justice there will always be good and bad decisions and irregular or even criminal behaviour, and the right to criticise must be upheld, even when the criticism is unfounded. However, most criticism is targeted at instances in which courts have acted correctly, where the unfavourable nature of the decisions to certain parties is valued, interpreted and used by those in power who stand to lose as a result.
  
In your book you state that, "In Spain, the courts have not traditionally been a positive instrument in eradicating the political corruption that emerged alongside democracy". Do you think that the situation has changed and that the courts are now more effective?
 
Over the last twenty years we have seen an increase in the willingness to pursue political corruption and improvements in the technical capacity to do so, through repressive and preventive measures. In Catalonia, following the inevitable parliamentary meanderings, we finally have our own Anti-Fraud Office, which has quickly built an excellent international reputation and should serve as an example to the rest of Spain. The anti-corruption prosecutor's office, founded by Carlos Jiménez Villarejo, is proving to be a fundamental tool in pursuing crime linked to political corruption. However, the bad guys always outnumber the good, so we should be careful to guard against complacency.
  
Your successor in the role as Chief Prosecutor of Catalonia, Teresa Compte, commented in an interview for the UB magazine that "treatment of victims by the courts remains an area for improvement". Do you agree with this statement?
 
I agree that attending to the needs of victims can be improved. In some cases the very actions of the courts can produce a second instance of victimization that compounds the effects of the actual crime. This is not a problem that can be solved with money alone, although greater funds are obviously required. In addition, we need to make individual and collective efforts to humanize the personal and procedural treatment of people whose psychological or social state has been rendered fragile by the actions of the offender.
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