Apprentice Lawyers in Tunisia: The Ethics of Exclusion

2016-08-16    |   

Apprentice Lawyers in Tunisia: The Ethics of Exclusion

Newcomers to the Tunisian legal profession are divided into two categories:

Experienced legal practitioners who can register in the courts of appeal and cassation register of lawyers. This category includes judges who have been in the judiciary for ten years, and have not been dismissed for a misdemeanor involving a breach of trust; and PhD university professors of law; and,

Young lawyers obligatorily registered on the list of apprentice lawyers. Before 2010, the number on this list exceeded 500,[1] since the law allows those holding a Master of Advanced Studies in Law to be directly registered as legal practitioners without the need to obtain a qualification certificate in law. Starting in 2010, and in order to avoid this inflation in the number of lawyers, the category of apprentice lawyers has become limited to holders of competency certificates among law graduates of the Higher Institute of Law. Consequently, as of 2011, the number registered annually has decreased to approximately 200 apprentice lawyers.[2] While it is assumed that the decline in the number of apprentice attorneys would result in improved training conditions and better financial and professional status, the reality is much different. The condition of these lawyers is still poor, and the new procedures and legislations do not include any attempts to improve it.

The Apprenticeship Office: The Rare Gem

Accepting to train an apprentice lawyer in the office of an attorney registered in the courts of appeal, or cassation register of lawyers, is one of the main obstacles faced by graduates of the Higher Institute of Law in their journey to becoming members in the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. Many lawyers refuse to accept interns for various reasons, including the following:

The legal profession’s bylaw obligates the training attorney to provide a decent office for apprentices, ensuring practice of the legal profession in good circumstances that protect the client's’ confidentiality. A significant number of lawyers cannot provide this because of the high cost of office rental fees;

Fear of stealing their clients and disclosing office secrets. This obstacle forces apprentice lawyers seeking to become registered legal practitioners to submit to the conditions set by those who accept to train them. Some of these conditions go as far as making the apprentice pay the Tunisian Order of Lawyers’ subscription fees of their training attorney, or even share the financial burdens of the office. The difficulty of finding an apprenticeship office makes some lawyers merely search for a lawyer who accepts to give them a courtesy certificate that can facilitate their registration as official lawyers, knowing in advance that they will not secure an actual apprenticeship period.

The training attorney loses their role in passing along the ethics of the legal profession to the trainee the minute they practice financial extortion. Apprentices who cannot find apprenticeship offices are obliged to work on the streets. In both cases, failure to find an office where they can train becomes a main reason for the decline of professional ethics among a number of young lawyers. While the apprentice who manages to land an apprenticeship at an attorney’s office succeeds in securing a legal status, they may face difficulties in their relationship with their trainer.

The Fragile Position of Apprentice Lawyers

Theoretically, the apprenticeship period is supposed to be significant in the formation of the lawyer’s personality, including his professional ethics. The apprentices’ mingling with their training attorneys makes them gain that knowledge. “The seniors” –as their fellow young lawyers like to call them– are keen on taking care of their apprentices in a relationship more like that of a teacher–pupil one. It is a strict vertical relationship at the beginning that ends in a long–term friendship. In contrast, a large number of apprentice lawyers find themselves in a completely fragile relationship with their training attorneys. Many of these attorneys treat apprentice lawyers as if they were “forced laborers” who prepare their reports and attend their court hearings, without any financial compensation, even if petty. In some cases, the training attorney even prohibits the apprentice lawyer from receiving their clients at the office or from checking their personal case files, under the pretext that this distracts them from office work.

This kind of treatment sometimes forces the young intern to receive their clients outside the supervising attorney’s office, which deprives them from performing their job in decent conditions and complicates their financial situation. Young lawyers find themselves unable to even pay the annual subscription fees of the Tunisian Order of Lawyers; thus, depriving them from benefitting from the services of the National Fund for Health Insurance, since all these fees are linked.

Despite the increase in exploitation and abuse cases, no efforts are made whatsoever to put an end to them. One of the main solutions that may be effective in this regard is to set a standard cooperation contract that provides for the financial rights of the apprentice lawyer and, in return, sets out clear and specific work commitments.

Assigning Apprentice Lawyers: When Courts Take Advantage of Their Fragile Position

Courts exploit the fragile position of apprentice lawyers and their need for judicial fees. Some criminal departments assign them in several cases, while prohibiting them from full access in many cases. Courts openly violate the laws in this regard, when only the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, in its regional branches, is authorized to assign lawyers. These branches rarely pay attention to apprentice lawyers.

The Issue of Young Lawyers… as Electoral Baits

All parties running for either the deanship, the board, chairmanship or membership of the branch or the Tunisian Association of Young Lawyers, promise as a slogan to improve the condition of apprentice lawyers. Such tactic wins them votes, but the winners often go back on their word when they win the elections, making no effort to realize these slogans.

Absent Reforms Deliberately

The pre-revolution despotic power adopted starvation as a method to deal with the rebellion of lawyers against its authority and their support of the issues of freedom of opinion and expression. To this end, legislations were passed to limit the lawyer’s field of work and encourage individuals to go to courts without the need for an attorney’s service. They also encouraged those licensed in law to open their own offices or work at those offering legal services and consultations, creating an illegal competition with lawyers. After the revolution, lawyers have relatively succeeded in reforming this situation, allowing for more space for their work and improving the contractual terms of their employment at public institutions. However, although these reform measures are important, it is not expected that they reflect positively on the narrow work space for apprentice lawyers.

Narrow Field and Heavy Commitments

Chapter 12 of the Tunisian Legal Profession Decree reads: “Apprentice lawyers may prosecute on behalf of litigants and plead under their [apprentice] name before all criminal courts.” They can also “prosecute and plead in other courts and bodies where it is not mandatory to assign a lawyer”. Other than that, apprentice lawyers are not allowed to prosecute and plead unless under the name and supervision of the attorney from whom they receive their apprenticeship. In addition, they may not prosecute before the Court of Cassation by any means. The spread of the phenomenon of brokering (hunting for clients) is resulting in the actual narrowing of the work of apprentice lawyers in criminal cases. Meanwhile, the legal stipulation that apprentice lawyers indicate their title on all their reports and transactions consolidates the clients’ trust in them.

The Rules of Procedure of the legal profession require that apprentice lawyers pay subscription fees for their membership in the Tunisian Order of Lawyers and the National Fund for Health Insurance. Apprentice lawyers who fail to do so face disciplinary penalties and are deprived of health insurance benefits. The financial obligations of their family and the profession, and the limited income causes apprentice lawyers to lose their objective ability to withstand the temptations of brokering. Although those with the upper hand are behind the brokering, it mainly targets the work of young lawyers.


The Brokerage Trap

A number of lawyers hire persons who roam the courts, security departments, and hospitals to hunt for clients who need an attorney and direct them to the offices of these lawyers. This phenomenon mainly affects the work of young lawyers, depriving them of the opportunity to get clients. Moreover, a significant number of retired judges who become lawyers annually, results in another method of brokerage where the judge [who becomes a lawyer] and who was the chief justice befriends and knows other judges personally.

Apprentice lawyers are generally the victims of client hunters who have no regard for the ethics of the legal profession. This fierce competition forces a number of apprentice lawyers to fall into the trap of brokering due to their financial burdens.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] In 2008, 574 apprentice lawyers were registered in the apprentice lawyers register, and in 2009, the number was 551. In 2010, as an exceptional event since it was the last year for registration for holders of the Master of Advanced Studies certificate, the number reached 1,157 apprentice lawyers.
[2] In 2011, 202 apprentice lawyers were registered in the apprentice lawyers register, and in the year 2012, the number was 129. In 2013, only 52 apprentice lawyers were registered due to the closure of the Higher Institute of Law. In the year 2014, the number was 189, and 220 in 2015. In 2016, the number of apprentice lawyers reached 172.

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