Cause Lawyers in Lebanon: A Preliminary Profile

2016-04-27    |   

Cause Lawyers in Lebanon: A Preliminary Profile

In the summer of 2015, Lebanon witnessed a popular activist movement [Harak] as a result of the state's failure to solve the waste crisis. Beirut and other regions in Lebanon saw large-scale demonstrations; some of the largest in the last ten years. In conjunction with these protests, the Lebanese authorities made a large number of arrests in a systematic and intensive manner, bringing demonstrators before military courts. The final number of people referred to the military judiciary reached 54, not to mention those who were arrested without charge then released.[1]

Following these arrests, a number of lawyers volunteered to defend the detainees and to ensure the right to protest. These attorneys defended them before the judicial police, i.e., at police stations, and before the investigating judges in the event of arrest and prosecution. A group of lawyers established the Lawyers' Committee to Defend Protesters, joining another number of the harak attorneys to defend detained protesters. The committee effectively commenced its work in the demonstration of August 29, noting that a number of individual lawyers of both sexes had previously volunteered to provide free legal assistance.

This event has been very significant in terms of its role in the defense of protesters and the harak on the one hand, and its creation of a unique experience for the entire legal practice body in Lebanon on the other. It has enhanced the image of lawyers advocating issues of public affairs and cooperating amongst each other on these types of causes. Thus, in line with The Legal Agenda’s goal of studying legal professions and how they interact with public social issues, documentation of such experience is necessary. Our documentation aims to contribute to enhancing the image of cause lawyers, and to highlight the positive aspects and the obstacles that might hinder their work.

This documentation is complemented by another study that was prepared by The Legal Agenda in 2013 about cause lawyers advocating issues of public affairs. It was a preliminary study of a marginal and diverse professional world which finds itself in constant conflict with the traditional mainstream of the bar profession.[2] Some of the problems raised in the 2013 study regarding the cause lawyers are still raised in this one too, while other issues have evolved and changed due to the nature of the harak. These issues are what we seek to shed light on in this article.

The study, which is part of a series, examines harak lawyers of all categories. It sheds light on the nature of their work, how cooperation among them started, their backgrounds, factors that prompted them to volunteer in the defense of the harak detainees, and their relationship with activism and activists. In order to eliminate any form of self-censorship, the names of participants were withheld.

Who Are These Attorneys?

From Advocacy to Traditional Legal Practice: Different Backgrounds

The 2013 study concluded that cause lawyers in Lebanon make up a professional world that is different from the traditional legal profession. It also revealed that they do not fall into one category, as they come from different political, ideological, academic, and professional backgrounds.

This section identifies these backgrounds, with the aim of trying to draw an initial picture of advocate attorneys, and to understand their backgrounds and the framework of their activity. We will focus on three components: university education and apprenticeship, political ideology, and career course.

A.   Different Starting Points: Study and Apprenticeship

1.    University Education

The interviews conducted with lawyers show that the majority of them chose to study law out of their conviction regarding the rule of law and social justice. Most of them said that their choice to study law was to defend the weak and the wronged.

One of the lawyers told us: “Ever since I was little, I used to defend, debate, and argue…I left engineering to study law. I started the profession of troubles. Therefore, this was my premeditated choice.”

In relation to university education, it is clear that these lawyers received their degrees from various universities, including the Lebanese University, Beirut Arab University, and the University of Saint Joseph. As for higher studies, the majority of them pursued a graduate degree in law. A small percentage of these attorneys specialized in human rights or public affairs, while the majority specialized in private law.

Based on this, it is difficult to find any relationship between university education and  engagement in human rights issues. The majority of lawyers interviewed deny that their tendency to advocate public affairs had anything to do with the faculties of law, as the previous study indicated. However, it should be noted that a number of the harak lawyers pointed out the importance of the political atmosphere at universities. They believe that it has contributed to the development of their ideas and their involvement in public affairs, whereas the academic curriculum had no role in this.

“Back in university days, I was an activist in youth and students [organized] activism, in spite of Syrian tutelage [over Lebanese affairs in the 1990s]. Our struggle was then about the issue of students’ rights, demanding the amendment of the study program, allowing political action inside the university campus, and struggling for the establishment of student associations. We were able to establish the Students Association for Science and Economy for which I was the secretary…We participated in issues of public concern, such as high prices and the Palestinian issue. There was a time when I felt -as a law student- that I have duties, especially during the period of embargo on Iraq in 1993 and the starving of the Iraqi people. We studied the issue from a legal perspective and concluded that what was happening in Iraq was genocide. We conducted a study on how intervention by the International Criminal Court was a must…During university days, the experience we had was under the presence of the Syrian tutelage when we had clashes with the Syrian Intelligence which was present on campus. The Syrian Intelligence wanted no student action to take place and wanted to act however they pleased.”

2.    Apprenticeship

Apprenticeship may have played a role in motivating lawyers to advocate issues of public concern. To what extent does the law firm in which advocate lawyers got their training have a role in this, and what “type” of firms were they?

A relatively small number of lawyers attribute their inclination towards advocating issues of public concern to the law firm where they received their training. This could be due to the limited number of firms specialized in public affairs. Similarly, a number of lawyers who got their apprenticeship at law firms known for championing issues of public concern, consider that these firms have had a significant impact on them following the same path.

“In 2010, I began my apprenticeship at an attorney’s office who was an activist in human rights. I chose him because he was the ideal lawyer I aspired to become. I don’t want to be an attorney whose only concern is to make money or to work on cases putting individual interests above social interests. Not only did he have this perspective and approach to a lawyer’s work, but he also had the knowledge and the technique needed to deliver popular, social, and economic demands to the legal arena…Yes, the apprenticeship office certainly had a big role in my advocacy for human rights issues.”

Some of these advocates also believe that the apprenticeship firm’s engagement in the political atmospheres has had a clear impact on their work in advocacy. They believe that the training they received from lawyers engaged in the political environment has enabled them to build important relationships on the one hand, and the apprenticeship office was supportive of their involvement in public affairs, on the other.

It is evident that harak lawyers received their education from various universities, with diverse specializations; some close to the field of public affairs issues, and others far off that field. Moreover, apprenticeship has played a role for some attorneys as far as directing them towards public affairs, while the majority don’t believe it actually had any impact.

B.   Political Ideology

The nature of the harak invites us to look closely at the political and ideological trends of these lawyers to understand to what extent they had an impact on them, in terms of volunteering to defend the detainees. The obvious question here is whether these lawyers are affiliated with political parties or are actually “independent”. The conducted interviews show that they have different, even contradictory, political ideologies.

The majority of them are not affiliated with particular parties, and are not engaged in political work.[3] This does not negate the fact that they have their own views on public concern issues which they express in their human rights activities. On the other hand, there are attorneys who do not belong to political parties, and describe themselves as independent, but attempt to create reformist currents. They engage in political work and have political ambition. Two lawyers from the aforementioned category had run for parliamentary elections. What distinguishes this group from the preceding one is its engagement in politics, not just human rights work. We will later see how the status of the activist and the lawyer have merged during the harak. The third category is composed of lawyers who practice traditional party work and who do not hide their affiliation. Here, we distinguish between those affiliated with political parties represented in power (Walid Jumblat’s Socialist Party) and those that are not actually represented, such as the Lebanese Communist or the Iraqi Baath parties.

While we consider that non-partisan or independent lawyers who defend protesters demanding political reform that the lawyers themselves believe in is something “natural”, engagement by partisan lawyers in the harak which had repeatedly criticized their parties suggests that the harak, at least in its early stages, has attracted partisan individuals. One lawyer, who is a party affiliate, says the waste issue is what prompted him to volunteer, because this is a public demand. Moreover, volunteering by this category of lawyers highlights other reasons why they have come to defend the detainees. While some have volunteered out of reformist political ideas and their demand for reform activity, another group of lawyers have volunteered, motivated by purely human rights ideas, including the right to protest and the right to defend.

“I did not participate because of a political ideology, but because I believe that “just because you cannot afford to hire an attorney doesn’t mean you should be given the shrift”. The cost of hiring a lawyer in Lebanon is pretty high, especially for criminal defense lawyers, because legal assistance requires an effort by the litigant, heading to the Ministry of Economy [to obtain the required documents]. In addition, I was drawn to the cause of the harak, since it is about the waste issue.”

Thus, political and ideological backgrounds were not the only reasons that drew lawyers to the harak. Other reasons included “non-political” notions, such as the right to get legal aid. This indicates the different and diverse methods and justifications of advocacy that can be adopted by an attorney.

One partisan lawyer considers that his partisan ties have helped the harak, stating that the party’s framework has given him more potential than other lawyers working in associations:

“Being a proponent of the (name of party redacted) party has benefited me and the harak too. For example, when we lost one of the activists in the information branch, I used my personal connections to access information. When you work in a partisan strategy you have a more regulatory framework than others, especially those who work in NGOs and human rights organizations. We do not have the same background; ours is more realistic than anyone else’s. We don’t build castles in the sky; we know what we want to take and what we want to give for the client’s interest…NGO lawyers are unrealistic…”

C.   Career Course

The career path of harak lawyers is worth studying. Many questions are raised about the extent of their previous engagement in advocating human rights issues, their specialties in their career path, and the level of their experience.

Most of the lawyers in the study were relatively young. Their professional experience often did not exceed ten years, while the most experienced lawyers were personally hired by detained individuals and later joined the Lawyers' Committee to Defend Protesters. This could be a sign that the younger category of lawyers may be more willing to volunteer and to engage in teamwork than the senior lawyers.

With regard to specialization, it is difficult to determine a particular trend, since all these lawyers have worked on public interest cases at different times. The level of engagement in similar lawsuits vary between a lawyer and another. Many of them take criminal, civil, and commercial cases for companies. However, the common denominator among all the lawyers in the study is that they all provided free legal assistance at one time, whether directly through their offices or through the legal aid the Bar Association provides. This confirms that they are not far from working in public affairs. Advocacy methods adopted by these may differ: while the work of some is limited to the legal and political reform of the system, another category brings lawsuits and uses strategic litigation to defend marginalized groups. It should also be noted that the majority of these attorneys are involved in civil society organizations of which some are founders. The field of their work is not limited to human rights issues, as they also work in scout associations and regional committees.

In this section, we tried to draw a preliminary picture of the harak lawyers by studying their different backgrounds that may have had an impact on their direction towards advocacy. While it seems university education had no impact, the university formed a gateway to the first political experience for a number of these lawyers. The impact the apprenticeship had on them depended on the “character” of the apprenticeship law firm. As for political ideology, these lawyers are independent, party affiliates, and individuals working to establish a new political current, which is evidence of the different reasons that “attracted” them to the harak. On the professional level, all of them had engaged in public affairs at a certain period of their professional career. But they  cannot be combined into one template. This is what makes their experience and cooperation unique and significant.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

[1] See: Ghida Frangieh and Sarah Wansa’s, “How Did the Authorities Suppress the Right to Protest? Punishing Protesters Without Holding Security Forces Accountable”, The Legal Agenda – Lebanon, Issue No.32, October 2015.

[2] See: Lama Karame’s, “Lawyers Advocating Social Issues in Lebanon; A Preliminary Study of a Professional and Marginal World”, The Legal Agenda.
[3] Politics in this context means participation in political life, elections, and partisan frameworks; not politics in the sense of public affairs service.

Share the article

Mapped through:

Articles, Lebanon, Social Movements

For Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *