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Judges Play Musical Chairs

The annual rotation of judges disrupts and slows the judicial process, according to lawyers in Syria. However, they acknowledge that it may be an attempt to reduce the scope for corruption.

On June 10, Syria shuffled a number of judges from various jurisdictions. Every year, the justice ministry transfers judges between courts. They may shift geographical location or even jurisdiction, but they remain at the same level as their previous post.

If judges changes job in the middle of a trial, the case resumes from where their predecessor left off. This can disrupt the judicial process, lawyers say.

"Transfers are confusing for judges,” said Michel Shammas, a Damascus-based lawyer and writer. “They slow down the judicial process and create obstacles to justice. It takes a long time for a judge who has been in another court to become familiar with a new case in a different court. It wastes time.”

The justice ministry has carried out such transfers for the last 30 years, the official justification being a need to distribute work fairly, Shammas said.

On June 1, the supreme judicial council, the body which oversees the judiciary and has powers of appointment, dismissal and transfer, asked judges to declare their assets and those of their immediate relatives.

The news, reported by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, fuelled speculation among attorneys that the government believes corruption is widespread.

Some suspect the regular transfers between posts are also designed to limit the opportunities for judges to get too comfortable.

"Because most cases take several years, they think that if a judge knows he’s going to be transferred next year and won’t have time to conclude the case, he won’t take a bribe," said a 58-year-old lawyer from Homs.

But he added, "transferring judges is like moving chess pieces. It won’t solve the problems.”

One 40-year-old lawyer in Damascus who resigned after serving as a judge in a low-level court for two years, insisted that judicial reform cannot be effective unless it is part of wider political and economic changes.

"Many judges aren’t qualified to be judges, and win their positions through nepotism,” he said. “Corruption in the judicial system is just a reflection of corruption throughout the country."

In some cases, transfers may happen for political reasons. Shammas said the system can be used to relocate independent judges who refuse to allow anyone to influence their cases.

One 32-year-old lawyer based in the capital sees the transfer system as a “sword hanging over judges” that threatens their independence.

Transfers also make it difficult for judges to acquire a specialisation, according to the lawyer from Homs. For example, an expert on civil law may not be effective in a criminal court.

Another reason for moving judges can be to speed up a case when the three-member panel used in the supreme, appeals and criminal courts cannot reach agreement.

Some lawyers who have dealt with difficult judges support the transfer, even if the change slows down the case.

"Sometimes I’m on fire waiting for a transfer, for example when I have a case and the judge is bad, corrupt or inexperienced,” said a 39-year-old female lawyer from Damascus. “It’s a chance to start afresh with a good one."

Syria has approximately 1,100 judges, about one for every 20,000 people. The small number of judges forces them to juggle several cases at once, slowing an already sluggish system.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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