Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

March 25, 2016

Saudi Women Lawyers Achieve Equality in the Courtroom

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly 

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.

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