There are increasing numbers of legal suits concerning access to medicines brought against the Rio de Janeiro State Health Department. The situation indicated the need for a study to clarify the underlying issues. A sample of 389 court suits from January 1991 to December 2001 (stratified by year) was used. A cross-sectional design was used to describe and analyze the legal suits in relation to the responsibilities defined under the Unified National Health System (SUS). Results suggest major delays in court decisions. Most suits are filed by the Public Defender's Office for users of the National Health System. The most frequent cases involve medicines for the cardiovascular and nervous systems, many of which involve continuous use. Prescribing practices are institutionalized through the inclusion of the most frequently prescribed drugs in public financing lists, which makes rational drug use difficult to achieve. Municipalities are not fulfilling their responsibility to supply medicines to users, and the State is thus encumbered with these responsibilities. However, the State does not adequately supply medicines to the municipalities. The apparent lack of awareness among both lawyers and clients generates stress between the Executive and Judiciary branches and limits the resources for collective pharmaceutical services.