Turkey controversial bar association reform law moves ahead despite criticism over 'politicisation'

Turkey controversial bar association reform law moves ahead despite criticism over 'politicisation'
4 min read
08 July, 2020
Turkey's reform of bar associations has been decried as an attempt to divide the legal profession along political lines, but the governmet says it allows for more pluralism and democratisation.
Turkish lawyers protest the draft law in Ankara [Getty]
The Turkish government's planned shake-up of the legal profession, which would allow for the establishment of multiple bar associations, has been lambasted by human rights groups who claim it will severely diminish lawyers' authority as human rights watchdogs, but the government says the law will make for a "more democratic and pluralistic" system.

Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists voiced concerns over the controversial reform in a statement on Tuesday, ahead of a vote on the draft law in parliament in several days' time.

The law, proposed in June, has already sparked demonstrations by lawyers in Turkey's main cities. The government has not consulted any of the current bar associations, while 78 out of 80 associations have signed a statement opposing the plan.

Experts say the law would greatly reduce the representation of lawyers from Turkey's biggest cities at the national Union of Turkish Bar Associations. It would also allow any group of more than 2,000 lawyers within provinces that have more than 5,000 total lawyers, to form their own bar association.

But the government argues that the draft law will make for a "more democratic and pluralistic" system.

"For the bars that have more than 5,000 members, we are bringing a regulation that at least 2,000 lawyers can form the second, the third or the fourth bar by coming together," Cahit Ozkan, deputy group chair of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, told reporters in the parliament in late June.

Each bar association in the provinces will be represented by three delegates and a president in the General Assembly of Union of Turkish Bar Associations, Ozkan added, according to Anadolu Agency.

"Before bringing the regulation, we went through rigorous study," he said.

The majority of associations themselves, as well as lawyers and activists, allege the move will curtail the authority of existing bar associations in larger cities, which have been vocal critics of the government's breaches of human rights and the rule of law.

Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: "Turkey’s prominent bar associations play a key role in defending fair trial rights and scrutinising human rights at a time when flagrant violation of rights is the norm in Turkey."

"The government move to create multiple bars and dramatically cut leading bars’ representation at the national level is a clear divide-and-rule tactic to diminish the bar associations’ authority and watchdog role," he added.

All lawyers in Turkey are required to register with a single bar association in their province, with associations currently numbering 80. The Ankara-based Union of Turkish Bars, is the national umbrella body which distributes financial resources to its provincial arms.

As well as providing services to the provincial population, such as legal aid services and emergency legal representation, the associations also issue legal permits to newly qualified lawyers and monitor ethical standards in the province's legal workforce.

Provincial associations also establish their own commissions into issues such as women's rights and refugee rights. Since the failed 2016 coup, bar associations have taken a leading role in documenting human rights violations, including cases of torture and enforced disappearance.

The proposed amendments seeks to alter the number of delegates at the national bar union, with the greatest impact on the largest bar associations.

For example, Izmir which counts 9,500 lawyers in its bar association, would be able to send just five delegates to the national union, whereas it currently sends 35.

Meanwhile, provincial bar associations with less than 100 lawyers, such as Ardahan in northeastern Turkey, would be able to send four delegates instead of the usual three.

HRW's statement pointed out that these larger associations have come under government criticism over the past year after expressing concern over breaches of human rights and executive interference in the justice system.

Roisin Pillay, director of the Europe and Central Asia Programme at the International Commission of Jurists, called on the Turkish government to "immediately withdraw" the proposed amendment and instead hold consultations with bar associations.

"The government’s plan as it stands will only deepen mistrust in Turkey’s justice system as lacking independence by dividing the legal profession along political lines," she said. "This could have disastrous long-term consequences for upholding the role and function of lawyers and for fair trial rights."

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