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The autonomy of public defender's offices: a systematic comparison between Latin American countries

Bernardo Oliveira Buta (Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV EAESP), São Paulo, Brazil)

International Journal of Public Sector Management

ISSN: 0951-3558

Article publication date: 21 June 2021

Issue publication date: 28 June 2021




In most Latin American countries, the provision of legal assistance to the vulnerable population is carried out by public defender's offices (PDOs), agencies composed of state-paid career lawyers. The aim of this paper is to explain the cross-country variation in regarding the autonomy levels of Latin American PDOs.


A scale to measure autonomy was built allowing access to the autonomy of sixteen different PDOs. Data were gathered through content analysis of the statutes that organize the PDOs and analyzed through qualitative comparative analysis (QCA).


The results demonstrate different levels of autonomy among Latin American PDOs. Furthermore, conditions related to institutional and social contexts, such as levels of income, human development, democracy, and the complexity of the political systems, presented sufficient relationships for high levels of autonomy.

Research limitations/implications

It was not possible to interview representatives of the PDOs analyzed. This could help the interpretation of the legislation applied to PDOs, as well as the observation of regulations that may not have come to the knowledge of researchers. Thus, analyses were made according to what was observed in the legislation of each country. It is also noteworthy that this research covered only nationwide PDOs, not involving subnational PDOs. In addition, the data have only internal validity, and cannot be extrapolated to the population.

Practical implications

The creation of a scale to measure the autonomy of public agencies stands out as an original comparative data set of PDOs covering a large amount of Latin American countries.

Social implications

This study was able to characterize the institutional arrangements of sixteen national PDOs, allowing broad comparison between legal aid agencies for the vulnerable population in a region of the world that still suffers from high levels of poverty.


The article presents possible explanations on the variations of PDOs' level of autonomy, showing PDOs' idiosyncrasies, whose autonomy is influenced also by social context variables, in view of the nature of their mission. It should be noted that factors related to the social context are not widely considered by the literature on autonomy of public agencies.



The author grateful to the research group led by Professor Kutsal Yesilkagit at Leiden University, particularly Kohei Suzuki, for their valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper. The author also thank Professors Marco Teixeira, Alketa Peci, Ricardo Gomes and Pedro Cavalcante, as well as the three anonymous reviewers whose comments and recommendations were decisive in improving the quality of the paper.


Buta, B.O. (2021), "The autonomy of public defender's offices: a systematic comparison between Latin American countries", International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 34 No. 5, pp. 586-601.



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