CAIRO: While access to justice is protected by Articles 66 and 68 of the constitution, there remain obstacles to implementing them, a two-day workshop concluded last week.
Around 35 people – lawyers, government and NGO representatives, as well as researchers – attended the Regional Workshop on National Assessments on Access to Justice and Legal Aid, organized by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Ministry of State for Administrative Development’s Governance Center.
The conference aimed at following up on last year’s workshop in Alexandria, to draw conclusions of the studies made and to issue recommendations to government and international institutions on how to achieve quick and effective justice for all members of the society.
While Ahmed Hani, representative of the Ministry for Justice and Administrative Development, said Egypt achieved “the highest levels of justice,” thanks to its judges, Moustafa Abdel Ghaffar, who conducted the study on Egypt, disagreed.
“The duplicity in the judiciary system [the existence of a civil and military court system] is an important obstacle to accessing justice in Egypt, along with the ongoing problem of non- enforcement of judgments, the high costs of a trial and the lack of awareness of one’s own rights,” he said.
“Thirty-one percent of all cases are rejected by the court because the case was filed wrongly in the first place,” Abdel Ghaffar said.
Nihad Aboul Qomsan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, echoed Abdel Ghaffar’s sentiments saying, “There is a lack of legal awareness at all levels, even lawyers ignore the law.”
Abdel Ghaffar explained: “There is no special qualification for lawyers, no exam. There is no institutional body that could properly transfer legal knowledge or best practices. The legal profession is controlled by individual practitioners who have only their university degree in law.”
The workshop’s participants recommended the instauration of a proper exam for lawyers, as well as better access to material support and training workshops.
A major challenge during the workshop was the definition of legal aid. For Eva Abu Halaweh from the Jordanian NGO Mizan, legal aid is both legal advice and legal representation in front of the court, whereas Rehab Tarek from the UNODC considers legal aid to be primarily counseling and orientation.
This is what the new UNODC project aims at through creating legal aid offices in Egyptian courts. Such offices will orientate and advise the litigants legally, accelerate the procedures and make sure all documents are available, and finally supervise the implementation of the judgment, all free of charge.
Responding to the question of who has the right to demand free legal aid, Tarek said: “Everybody can use our services. We don’t replace normal lawyers, we only provide information.”
On her part, Aboul Qomsan acknowledged that “there is a challenge in identifying those who are in need of legal aid,” but she clearly stated, “we do not compete with lawyers. We provide people with legal aid that otherwise would not go to court at all. We do not take the clients from the private lawyers and provide them with free legal aid.”
“Legal aid prevents violence as an alternative to justice,” Abu Halaweh said, backed by the majority of the participants, who agreed on the importance that legal assistance and representation is provided for free for people in need.
“Fifty percent of the cases are solved when we [the center] file the case – people are ready to negotiate when they feel that the other party is not as weak as they thought,” Aboul Qomsan said.
However, Aboul Qomsan asserted that “the civil society could never replace the role that should be carried out by the government and the legal system – we only fill the gap.”
The recommendations of the conference highlighted the need to enact a legislation that protects both victims and witnesses of a case.
“Women in Egypt are afraid of the legal system, the police,” Aboul Qomsan said.
Hussein Mahmoud from the Governance Center added: “You need to feel and to be safe after having filed a complaint.”
Ministry of Justice representative Hani at the end lauded the system, saying “Egypt has recently completed the automation of the judicial system. This limits and controls the human element in the procedures, simplifies and centralizes the procedures and makes it easier to provide statistics and hence identify points of weakness of the system.”
The recommendations issued at the end of the workshop included other points, which especially emphasized on the need for cooperation in the region, as on the international level.
“We should benefit from the EU or the US experiences in making recommendations and try to introduce the best practices from other countries,” Abu Halaweh said.