IMPLICATIONS: Although the COE found the draft law to be in compliance with the Council’s standards, it was never introduced into parliament. Instead, in late 2002, the Ministry of Justice began developing a new draft law that may be introduced into parliament in fall 2003. While the latest draft contains a number of improvements over prior MOJ drafts, this latest draft still contains some questionable provisions. For example, under Article 7, the Union of Advocates of the Republic of Armenia (UARA), which is closely linked to the government, would hold a monopoly on state-funded legal aid. This could provide a back-door mechanism for the government to exert influence in the legal system and for continued corruption in criminal cases, which are viewed as the most lucrative cases (many observers report that defendants are often asked to buy their freedom or a lesser sentence). Article 14 of the proposed law calls for qualification exams to have both a written component and an oral interview. The latter aspect is the most troubling, in that, as with judicial examinations, non-transparent interviews are seen as an opportunity for corruption. A “passing” grade could be given to the highest bidder. In a similar vein, representatives from the UARA would dominate a proposed qualification commission. Again, given this union’s links to the government, this may present an opportunity for more government control and corruption. Article 30 vaguely refers to types of encouragement for advocates that include a one-time monetary award or dismissal of disciplinary action. While this provision harkens back to the Soviet gramata for meritorious service, the vague language used in the law could provide yet another opportunity for corruption. On a final note, Article 33 enables advocates to form unions if 50 or more members join. On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable provision. In fact, the Armenian government has argued that by creating multiple unions, competition is created, which benefits consumers of legal services. However, this presumes that advocate unions would function as quasi-law firms, but this may not be desirable. Advocate unions, and more generally bar associations, have three main functions. First, they should advocate on behalf of the profession’s interests. The creation of multiple advocate unions dilutes their ability to do this. Second, professional associations of lawyers should provide continuing legal education opportunities, should establish professional standards, should engage in legal public awareness activities, and should participate in law reform. These are not necessarily activities that are best regulated by market principles. If the current draft of the Law on Advocates is passed, it could have two serious implications for the rule of law in Armenia. First, it could undermine the burgeoning independence that may exist among advocates. In fact, some might argue that the government may be using this opportunity to punish the other of the two advocate unions, the International Bar Union, because of its attempts to defend opposition supporters who were detained or arrested during the 2003 presidential elections. Second, the law, if it is adopted, may serve to entrench corrupt practices further within the legal system. Specifically, it is likely that lawyers would continue to constitute a part of a corrupt justice system, channeling bribes from parties in a case to court officials. This can only serve to undermine public confidence in the legal system and delay the establishment of the rule of law.
CONCLUSIONS: It is clear that revisions to the current draft law are necessary for key provisions of any future law to conform to international standards for the legal profession. Other identified provisions, such as Article 30, need greater clarity if they are to remain as part of the law. This is likely to be successful if international organizations like the COE continue to work with the Armenian government to insert appropriate provisions, using the threat of sanctions but also incentives such as tied funding.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Claude Zullo is Associate Country Director for the Caucasus at the American Bar Association’s Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative.