On Monday, April 20, 2015, The Legal Agenda held a press conference in Bayt al-Muhami building, Beirut, to launch a project titled ‘Judicial Independence: a Social Priority in Lebanon’. The Legal Agenda is carrying out this project in cooperation with the International Commission of Jurists and the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences (Italy), with funding from the European Union (EU).

The conference was attended by the Supreme Judicial Council’s (SJC) President Judge Jean Fahed, the State Council’s Head Judge Shukri Sader, the General Prosecutor Judge Samir Hammoud, and the Judicial Inspection Committee’s President Judge Akram Baasiri, as well as SJC members Judge Joseph Samaha and Judge Myrna Bayda. Also in attendance were Ministry of Justice director-general Judge Maysam al-Noueiri, government Commissioner of the State Council Abdullatif al-Husseini, Institute of Judicial Studies’ President Judge Nada Dakroub and director Judge Suhail Abboud, as well as Beirut Bar Association (BBA) secretary-general Toufic Noueiry, a number of BBA councilors (Nader Gaspard and Fady al-Haddad), former ministers Charbel Nahas and Mona Ofeich, and a number of judges, lawyers, and representatives from civil organizations.


The conference began with a videoed speech by Georges Jreij, president of the BBA, who was unable to attend due to travel. Jreij responded to a group of questions that The Legal Agenda had previously put to him regarding the threats to judicial independence in Lebanon, and the role of lawyers in general and the BBA in particular, in protecting this independence. He stated that “the lawyer is a partner in justice. The BBA is in constant contact with the SJC, and our shared goal is to protect justice by means of an independent and impartial judiciary”. He noted, however, that any discussion of judicial independence remains “theoretical talk unless the people also have faith in the independence of the judiciary”.


Lawyer Nizar Saghieh, executive director of The Legal Agenda, delivered a speech on behalf of his organization and its partners. He discussed the three approaches taken by The Legal Agenda and its partners to develop for this project:


  1. The media and research approach. This approach is based on monitoring, understanding, and analyzing the forms of interference in the judiciary. This approach is important because “putting an end to interference in the judiciary that violates the rights of judges and litigants, requires readiness and persistence in monitoring the different aspects of this interference, as well as its forms and risks. It also requires competence and in-depth knowledge of the judicial system and its activity, and most importantly the capacity to properly develop problematics relating to judicial independence and the principles of fair trial”. To this end, the project will work to “draft a comprehensive report on the judiciary’s situation, and the most prominent issues hindering its independence by employing a scientific methodology based on available documentation and archives, as well as interviews with individuals who witnessed important events in the palaces of justice”. Similarly, it will work to establish “a regional center for judicial studies and policies”, which should “operate in coordination with the Institute of Judicial Studies”, and “provide research material for judges and trainees and all those interested in judicial affairs, including media personnel who wish to specialize in judicial affairs”.


  1. Social action and enhancing judicial activism [harak], and other forms surrounding judicial matters to strengthen the judiciary’s social status. This approach is based on “support[ing] the reformist trends within the judiciary, most prominently, those aiming to form professional democratic judicial groups, like the judicial studies seminar which was formed by pioneering judges during the period of 1969-1972. This creates solidarity between judges and strengthens the safeguards against any interference, control, or sectarianization”. It also involves supporting the trend towards “activat[ing] participation within the courts’ general assemblies”, of which “the formation of the advisory committees recently established by the Supreme Judicial Council shall mark the beginning”. Another goal of this approach is to highlight “the importance of resorting to the judiciary on important social issues, especially those that collide with the barriers of political interests”. Saghieh also stressed that “the success of these initiatives will enhance communication between social rights-based movements and the judiciary. It is evident that the judiciary is a main gateway to developing the human rights system, and is often a cure for the sterile legislative and executive powers. As a result, citizens will care more to defend its independence”.


  1. The legislative and institutional approach. This approach consists primarily of “working on the formulation of clear issues of reform, specifically the drafting of laws including the Administration of Justice Act and other regulations in several areas, such as the one relating to criteria for the appointment or transfer of judges. This will be conducted in coordination with the Supreme Judicial Council and other judicial bodies within this framework”. The most important principles that will be adopted in pursuing this approach are:


  • The principle of participation in the drafting of bills. Judicial work is a public matter, if not one of the most significant public matters. It requires the participation of large segments of society in its reform;

  • Carefully identifying reform priorities, and taking the highest precautionary measures to avoid any adverse effects; and

  • Compliance with international standards for judicial independence.
     

Following Saghieh’s speech, SJC President Judge Jean Fahed discussed the five-year plan that the SJC had prepared and begun implementing with support from donors, the foremost being the EU. He emphasized the importance of the project that The Legal Agenda has launched and of relying on it to “raise awareness about the importance of judicial independence as a social need that promotes societal development in the areas of security and economics, and to support all of the steps that the judicial system takes towards increasing its independence, whether they involve improving work methods or articulating such independence through the necessary legislative reforms”.


Judge Shukri Sader, head of the State Council, then made a powerful and surprising speech. “The law and the Constitution stipulate that the judiciary issues rulings in the name of the Lebanese people”, he stated. “Can we say today that the Lebanese people and the judiciary are reconciled with one another? I don’t imagine so, hence the importance of reconciling the people with its judiciary. This can only occur when the judiciary proves that it is worthy of the faith that the citizens place in it, through the quality of the rulings that it issues in their name, and through its competence and impartiality”. Sader described the fundamental problem obstructing any initiative to reform Lebanon’s judiciary as “the atrocious [wahshi] interference of politicians, as well as the interference of the sects in [judicial] appointments, and the fact that each one must receive its share”. He stressed that the entire Lebanese people, in all its civil institutions and civil society organizations, must help immunize the judiciary against this interference and encroachment, which hinders its ability to function effectively. In his view, the judiciary must prioritize this issue for the sake of building a better society based on the rule of law.


In her speech, Judge Maysam al-Noueiri, director-general of the Ministry of Justice, stressed the significant role that the Ministry of Justice plays in protecting and strengthening judicial independence. She said that “interaction and coordination between the judicial branch and the Ministry of Justice in a manner that serves the best interest of judges, will surely produce positive outcomes that help consolidate and support the independence of judges in all aspects of their professional lives”. Al-Noueiri also stressed that although independence actually begins in the courthouses, i.e., with the judges themselves and the authority presiding over them, it cannot be effective without cooperation with the Ministry of Justice. She emphasized “the necessity of cooperating with all bodies, both governmental and non-governmental, especially the BBA and civil society organizations, including key actors like the The Legal Agenda, so that the project’s desired outcome of strengthening judicial independence can be achieved”.


Finally, Maciej Golubiewski, head of the Political Section at the Delegation of the EU to Lebanon, the body supporting and funding the project, expressed the EU’s close interest in realizing judicial independence in Lebanon and improving conditions inside the prisons and military courts.


The conference ended with a cocktail party to celebrate the occasion.

This press release is an edited translation from Arabic.