By Rob L. Wagner
25 March 2016
Jeddah – Saudi lawyer Dimah Talal Alsharif had few expectations when she began practising law two years ago in Saudi Arabia’s judicial system but, in the relatively short time that she has been representing clients, she discovered female attorneys are powerful tools in the courts.
“My perspective is really different now,” Alsharif said. “Judges are beginning to appreciate us and starting to listen.”
There has been considerable progress in women’s rights in the Saudi judicial system since 2011. The Ministry of Justice recently adopted policies to streamline legal procedures for female plaintiffs in civil cases by exempting them from the requirement that plaintiffs file lawsuits in the jurisdiction of the defendant’s residence. The exception eliminates the need to travel, sometimes at great distances, to the defendant’s city to file a lawsuit.
Equally important is that female lawyers are now permitted to practise law in a courtroom before a judge and can represent men and women.
“There is no difference now,” Alsharif said. “We are in the same position as our male colleagues. Judges today are more kind, more educated and more open-minded than a few years ago.”
It was not always that way. Saudi Arabia has a reputation for an opaque judicial system in which tribal biases seemed to influence judicial rulings. Saudi law is based on sharia, which is an interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah and is not codified. Although the Ministry of Justice announced in 2009 that it planned to codify civil and criminal laws, little is known of the programme’s progress.
Until recently, the majority of judges earned postgraduate degrees in Islamic Studies, usually from Riyadh’s Imam Mohamed bin Saud Islamic University. Formal legal training was not a requirement and judges were permitted wide interpretations of sharia. It was not uncommon that social pressure, regional differences and tribal customs played significant roles in rulings.
Alsharif characterised tribal biases influencing rulings today as “accidents”, although overall she has witnessed few problems.
Khaleel al-Basha, a Jeddah lawyer, said some issues persist in domestic courts.
“Some of the difficulties they (women) face is the difference in the verdicts in similar cases from one court to another,” Basha said. “All are due to the fact they are based on ijtihad (independent interpretation of sharia) that leaves it up to the judge’s interpretation and evaluation on the evidence he has.”
Yet overall, women clients and lawyers have made great strides in legal representation, he said.
“There is a wide acceptance to women’s demands in regard to her rights whether from the society, the family or the courts,” Basha said. “However, there are still some reservations. On the other hand, a quite good number of female lawyers already representing their (clients) is a positive thing.”
He said domestic cases proceed quicker and occur in a single court hearing. Women are no longer forced to follow the wishes of her husband in divorce, custody and alimony cases. Women have access to mediation with a representative from her side of the family and one from her husband’s family. Judges often rule favourably on khula, or divorce initiated by the wife.
In fact, the Justice Ministry reported that there was a 48% increase in divorces initiated by women in 2015, with divorce cases making up 4.2% of domestic cases heard by Saudi judges.
To consider the rapid acceleration in women’s rights in the courtroom, it is instructive that Saudi Arabia only embraced the concept of legal representation in 1997 and officially authorised it in 2001. Saudi women began attending law school in 2004 with the first graduates receiving degrees in 2008. Even as late as 2011, the formal title of “lawyer” was elusive to women. Changes, however, were in the works as the ministry developed plans in 2010 to allow women lawyers to argue divorce, child custody and other family related cases in the courtroom. Law licences were formally granted women in 2013 and now several thousand hold law degrees.
Basha’s law firm, Wafa for Female Legal Consultation, offers Saudi women free consultations on how to navigate the judicial system, including writing petitions and understanding what occurs during a hearing. A similar service is provided by Al-Mawaddah for Family Development.
“Our main job is to clarify for women the Islamic and legal perspective of their case and their rights in Islamic society and raising their awareness in a way that guarantees that they receives their rights,” Basha said.
He said women’s lack of awareness of their Islamic rights have hurt them in the courtroom. “There is a lack of transparency in women’s rights,” he said. “There is a tremendous number of… family cases lost due to their lack of knowledge of their rights and the way to deal with the courts. There is a scarcity of cooperating lawyers who represent women and at the same time fees are skyrocketing.”
He cautioned women not to seek legal advice from unqualified people since that could damage their case. “Some women get wrong information about their legal rights,” Basha said.