Legal aid and access to justice in Lebanon
The Lebanese legal system recognises the equal access to justice and courts, including the provision of legal aid for those who otherwise lack the necessary means. While in principle, there is a legal right to access courts in Lebanon – a fundamental and unconditional right – a number of obstacles hinders this to be realised in practice.
In theory, provisions that relate to accessing justice are reflective of international standards and recent projects have made it a central feature in judicial reform projects. These principles have been affirmed by laws, discussed below. In practice, the Lebanese Bar Association, civil societies and local NGOs have been vital in this. However, similar to Egypt a stand-alone piece governing access to justice and the justice system is yet to be created1.
By virtue of Article 2 of the Code of Civil Procedures, international treaties, covenants, and conventions ratified by Lebanon are binding and applicable domestically. Lebanon has ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights 1976 (ICCPR). Of relevance is Article 14 of the ICCPR, which provides that an accused has the right to be present and defend in person, or through counsel of his or her choice, to be advised of these rights, and to be afforded counsel without cost if indigent.
Domestically, legal aid in criminal and civil cases is prescribed by statute and the relevant laws mandate the availability of aid including the procedures2.
Code of civil procedure
In civil cases, legal aid in Lebanon is mainly dependent upon the financial situation of the party requesting it. However, legal aid may be refused if it is apparent that the case has no merit. Chapter 7 of the Lebanese Code of Civil Procedure of 1983 creates the possibility for a party to apply for legal aid3. The law applies to all persons of Lebanese nationality, including habitually resident persons in Lebanon (where the person’s country of origin would grant a reciprocal right to a Lebanese national), if said person cannot pay the charges and fees of a trial. The party may apply for legal aid in order to sue or defend in the first instance or on appeal4. Further, aid may be sought for the purpose of initiating or defending the case. It may, even for the first time, be used for the use of appeals5.
Code of criminal procedure
Similarly, in criminal cases, the suspect or accused is entitled to the appointment of a legal aid lawyer, regardless of financial status. Article 78 of the Code of Criminal Procedure amended in 2001 states that if the defendant is unable to appoint an advocate, the investigating Judge shall appoint one or ask the President of the Bar Association to do so6. Usually, the application is referred from the court that handles the conflict where the defendant announces the inability to assign a lawyer. The relevant court processing the case forwards a letter to the relevant Bar Association in either Beirut or Tripoli requesting the allocation of a defence lawyer.
Legal aid NGOs and Bar associations play a critical role in providing support to refugees and assisting vulnerable Lebanese. Aid is mainly delivered through the Bar Association Legal Aid Committee created in 1993, which is under the umbrella of The Beirut Bar association. For civil and criminal cases, the court examines requests and if legal aid is approved by the court in which the claimant/defendant is found, a request is sent to the Committee headquartered in Beirut which will assign a lawyer for the case7.
There are also several NGOs, International organisations and civil society organisations that are active in Lebanon in the area of access to justice. While most of their work includes research, assessment, and legal counselling, some provide for legal representation8. Some law firms and individual lawyers provide assistance on a pro bono basis. However, this appears not to be a systematic provision of services.
Challenges Facing the Legal Aid Framework
Despite several efforts aimed at improving legal aid and access to justice in Lebanon, several challenges remain. For instance, legal aid will be denied by the court if it is clear that the claim or defence has no merit. The decision is not subject to appeal9. There have also been reports about the quality of legal aid. Trainee lawyers rather than experienced lawyers from the Bar association are often commissioned where legal aid is requested. The trainees lack adequate training and supervision, which in turn affects the quality of the representation provided to legal aid clients.
1 Article 426. Legal aid shall be granted to natural persons of Lebanese nationality, as well as to foreigners habitually resident in Lebanon and subject to reciprocity. Such aid may be granted exceptionally to non-profit legal persons and their management or business status in Lebanon.
2 With respect to criminal cases, Article 78 of the Code of Criminal Procedures. With respect to civil cases, Chapter 7 of the Code of Civil Procedures.
3 Article 425 If the case of an adversary does not enable him to pay the costs and expenses of the trial, he may apply for judicial aid.
4 Articles 425 – 427 Code of Civil Procedures.
5 Article 427. Judicial aid may be sought for the purpose of initiating or defending the case. It may, even for the first time, be used for the use of appeals. The submission of this request within the period of appeal shall lead to the suspension of this period until the decision of the applicant is notified.
6 Art 78 If the defendant chooses an advocate to defend him, the Investigating Judge may not question him or proceed with the investigative measures unless the advocate is present and is informed of all the investigative acts except for the witnesses’ statements, on pain of nullity of the questioning and of the subsequent measures. If the defendant is unable to appoint an advocate, the Investigating Judge shall appoint one or ask the President of the Bar Association to do so.
8 Such as CLDH, AJEM or Caritas Migrant Center.
9 Article 430 Code of Civil Procedure