Tunisia: making access to justice a reality for all
Tunis, 29 June 2018 – More than seven years after the fall of the dictatorship, the young Tunisian democracy is still under construction. Much of the work is ongoing or has yet to begin, including the essential reform of the justice system. In light of this situation, Avocats Sans Frontières and BEITI organised a national conference on access to justice, on 20 and 21 June, in partnership with the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Social Affairs.
This gathering – the first to bring together all those active in the country’s justice system – made it possible to take stock of the situation in terms of access to justice, particularly in relation to the reform of the legal and penitentiary systems, which was initiated in 2015, and to hold discussions on how to promote this fundamental right. According to Ghazi Jeribi, the Tunisian Minister of Justice; “Justice is an essential element of democracy, and the principle of equality before the law is at its core. It is vital to work towards its effective implementation.” He also drew attention to what has been accomplished over the past few years and to the progress of the programme of reform supported by the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme, representatives of which attended the opening of the event.
“Access to justice is access to dignity” – Patrice Bergamini, European Union Ambassador to Tunisia
The Tunisian Constitution of 2014 contains a number of fundamental principles relating to access to justice, such as the right to a fair trial within a reasonable period of time and the right to equality before the law. It also requires the state to facilitate access to justice and to provide legal aid to the most destitute.
Many Tunisians, however, especially vulnerable people, currently struggle to obtain justice. Both the authorities and legal professionals agree that, as Mr Jeribi accepted, “The framework of legal aid must be reformed in order to achieve equality for all categories of people.” The spokesperson for the Supreme Judicial Council, Akram Mouhli, added, “The main obstacles are the slow pace of legal processes and the unfeasibility of delivering help to destitute people.” Furthermore, the years of the dictatorship left people with a considerable distrust of legal institutions. Mr Mouhli argued, therefore, in favour of broadening free legal assistance, making translators available, and providing direct assistance to people. However, the system’s failings will not be resolved by directives alone. “Even though we have achieved significant reforms, in part through the adoption of Law 5, which grants the right of access to a lawyer while in custody, there are still many difficulties involved in ensuring that it is effective,” warned Ameur Mehrezi, President of the Tunisian National Bar Association.
Civil society is mobilising to put an end to the two-tier justice systemDuring the two days of the conference, several innovative, experimental European projects in the area of access to justice were presented, which shed light on issues such as the role and place of legal clinics in poor areas. More technical workshops were held, which made possible more in-depth discussions and resulted in more concrete recommendations. These included the need for the commission responsible for drawing up bills to recognise the multiplicity of actors working in the field and to ensure coordination between them to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of assistance. Similarly, the bar association was urged to explore new partnerships, particularly with universities, so that the importance of the social role of lawyers receives greater emphasis throughout their training.
Though there is still a long way to go, the conference has, once again, shown the capacity for Tunisian civil society to work with policy-makers to propose concrete measures in order to put an end to what amounts to a two-tier justice system. The most urgent and important of these measures appears to be overhauling the current system of legal aid.
Legal aid has existed in Tunisia for a long time, but the way it operates excludes many vulnerable people. The reform must, therefore, take into account all forms of exclusion. This can only be done through collaboration with the institutional and voluntary actors involved in the field.
The national conference on access to justice was organised in collaboration with the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, the Instance Nationale de Lutte Contre la Traite des Personnes (national anti-human trafficking commission), the Tunisian National Bar Association, the World Organisation Against Torture, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Amal Association for the family and the child, the Association Tunisienne de Défense des Libertés Individuelles (Tunisian association for the defence of individual freedoms), the Association Damj, and the Tunisian Human Rights League.