Impoverished Judges: When Livelihood Anxiety Sits Atop the Court Bench

2024-04-02    |   

Impoverished Judges: When Livelihood Anxiety Sits Atop the Court Bench
By Raed Charaf

Have Lebanese judges become poor? In this first of a series of research articles titled “Lebanese Judges during the Crisis”, we document the impact of the financial collapse on the daily material life of hundreds of judges.

Of course, the deterioration of judges’ living conditions that we describe here (their salaries now equal a few dozen USD, although sporadic aid has recently improved their incomes slightly) has large repercussions on the work of the judiciary and courts. A disturbance of the “private” among judges inevitably leads to a disturbance of the “public” on the level of the justice system, adding to the series of problems that the Lebanese judiciary has been suffering for decades. Moreover, this development will undoubtedly have important judicial and political consequences, some of which we will address in the coming articles: How can a fundamental authority such as the judiciary function when the people exercising this authority suffer difficult material and living conditions? What impact do these poor conditions have on the future of the project and practices of justice and state in Lebanon? Some people may scoff at these questions, arguing that it may be beneficial for judges to share the conditions of the humble people they judge every day or pointing out their responsibility for the dismal condition of the justice sector or the many privileges they previously enjoyed. However, a more mature and less spiteful look must be given to these worrying facts. We must also recall that most judges were not involved in the spiral of corruption, collusion, and extravagance that distinguished some of their colleagues since 1990 and that what we are witnessing – though some may find it amusing now – could have grave repercussions on the state project in future.

To begin with, three quick observations must be delivered. Firstly, the judges’ difficult situation is the same situation faced by many public servants, whom we do not address here. Secondly, signs of poverty may not appear openly on judges today as they still have the means of living that they possessed before the crisis by virtue of their comfortable material situation at that time, as well as the facilities and privileges that they enjoyed. Thirdly, there are large disparities and material inequalities among judges. Some relate to personal family wealth (e.g. parents, a wealthy spouse). Some relate to family status (children, elderly parents, bachelorhood). Some relate to the longstanding corruption practiced by a minority of judges distinguished for decades by their extravagant lifestyles not explained by their salaries or family status and by their close connection to political leaders who protected various forms of judicial corruption in exchange for judicial favors. While the crisis has no impact on regime judges, the world of most Lebanese judges today is extremely bleak.


Hungry Judges: Justice is Important, But How Do I Feed My Children?

The crisis of the devaluation of judges’ salaries is no longer one about maintaining a good standard of living. Rather, the material situation has become an existential concern manifesting itself in hunger or poor nutrition. The wolf has knocked on the doors of some judges (as with many of Lebanon’s residents), especially those supporting large families without any additional income provided by their spouses or their parents, who may have also been relying on the judge’s income. These judges complain to us about the extreme difficulty of providing food and drink adequate for all family members, especially between 2020 and the creation of temporary and limited mechanisms to improve judges’ incomes at the end of 2022. The instability of these mechanisms threatens to bring the era of hunger back for this vulnerable class of judges. Some describe experiencing hunger they had never felt before, as judge’s salaries are no longer enough to buy “bread and eggs” (interview).


“Now I look fine, but I lost 10 kilos. I stopped eating breakfast and dinner for a year and a half so my children could eat. I hope you believe me.” (Interview)


“Hunger struck most judges. What are we supposed to do, become domineering thugs who eat and drink without paying?” (Interview)


Amidst the worsening collapse of the Lebanese lira coupled with rising prices, especially in 2022, some judges did not hesitate to make distress calls in their main shared professional space, namely their WhatsApp group: “We’re skin and bones. At sundown a judge says, I have nothing to feed my children. Do something!” (interview). During our interviews and fieldwork, we repeatedly heard the story of one young judge who was giving most of his salary to his mother for household expenses and is also responsible for his young school-going sister: “He said to me, what do I do now when I was previously giving USD1,000 a month to my mother and taking 100 or 200 for myself? What do I give her now, and how can we live?” (interview). In the absence of any prospect of a solution in 2021 and 2022, some judges even resorted to selling personal belongings to secure food and drink. One bitter judge told us about selling belongings with great sentimental value to his family and children:


“I sold my household items. There were still things I was offering for sale that didn’t sell. This is my children’s piano [he shows us a photo on his phone], which I sold a year ago for USD1,400. I sold my children’s gold.” (Interview)


The judges told us multiple stories about the most vulnerable judges selling gold (personal jewelry or old items passed down from generation to generation) to make it through the month. They are stories of the “miserable” age of “humiliation” – the judiciary’s dark age in which there is no independence or peace of mind.


After Food: Judicial Life Corroded by Worries

While sustenance may worry only a small group of the most vulnerable judges, other livelihood concerns occupy the minds and daily activities of a broader segment of them. Tales of “misfortune” [ta’tir] dominated the conversation among them, displacing most other personal, professional, and legal topics and making talk about anything besides the material situation a luxury. One judge told us that he now avoids the owner of the neighborhood’s electricity generator lest he be asked to pay his subscription. How can this payment-dodging judge rule on law-dodgers, especially powerful and influential ones? And with the other monthly bills, which tally up to more than their salary, some judges told us that their days now revolve around successive attempts to make payments, constant negotiations to delay them, or the bitter pill of asking for help to pay or even avoid doing so. They are gripped by a feeling of helplessness not only at home but also in their offices and on the court benches, when they attend. Young judges training in the Institute of Judicial Studies or recently graduated, especially those without parents supporting them, are among the most vulnerable. These judges – who are the future of the Lebanese judiciary – may warrant a separate article, given the difficulty of their circumstances.


“A [young] judge lives with his sister. His salary is LL1,600,000. His home’s electric power subscription is one amp. His colleagues who were able to help him were doing so. All trainee judges are living on their parents’ dime.” (Interview)


Judges have abandoned the “luxury” of buying new clothing. Some said that they had not purchased a single piece of clothing in years. While judges may be able to ignore these needs, how can they ask their children – especially those at the age when they are rapidly growing – to wear clothes that have become too small for them (interview)? They need to budget for clothes several times a year, which remained beyond their means even after they began receiving some aid at the end of 2022. Moreover, in their private gatherings, judges have begun to joke cynically about whose clothes are the oldest. This indicates once again that their private and professional spaces and their habits have changed because of the severity of the crisis and its impact on their lives.

Transport, too, has become a source of anxiety for most judges that we interviewed. Their salaries are no longer enough to get to work. Consequently, during judges’ work stoppage in 2022, a debate arose among them about the best label for the action. While most preferred to avoid the word “strike” because judges do not strike (interviews), some criticized even the term “withdrawal” [i’tikaf]. They thought it better to call their movement an “inability to get to work” in order to accurately describe their situation. After road closures and COVID-19 prevented many judges from reaching their courts in 2019 and 2020 and the fuel outage did the same in 2021, fuel costs became the obstacle in 2021 because of their meager incomes.


“My bodyguard takes care of office matters like coffee, water, and petrol. The first time he asked at the start of the month for 1.5 million more than my salary, I was shocked.” (Interview)


The transport problem, too, differs in severity among judges based on the distance between their residences and workplaces. Lucky is the judge who lives near the court. Fuel is not the only problem as the car has other expenses now unaffordable to many judges. Of course, this situation has led to a reduction in the number of days in which judges attend court, which has in turn contributed to the slowdown of judicial work over the last two years, even beyond the days of the work stoppage.


“I take my children to school every day. I can’t go. I’m a judge who was going to court six days [a week]. Today, I don’t use my car because I’m not doing maintenance on it. It costs a huge amount. Today, getting to the court is a complicated thing, and I’m not one of the judges who are spoiled or lazy.” (Interview)


Beyond the difficulty of getting to work, the issue of transport has serious consequences on judges’ lives, becoming the straw that breaks the camel’s back and pushing some to leave the quagmire of Lebanese justice:


“I have an amazing colleague whom they put in Nabatieh. She couldn’t get to work anymore. She migrated to Canada.” (Interview)


Because of the importance of this issue, one of the priorities of the Judicial Follow-Up Committee, which judges formed in 2022 to find solutions to the deteriorating material situation, was to secure fuel for judges. The committee met with oil companies, and one donated LL700,000 [USD46] four times for every judge (interview), although the varying information that judges gave about the size and nature of the aid from fuel companies indicates that these scattered, unofficial solutions are hazy. This development caused a debate among judges about whether such a “meager” amount is worth having judges “beg” private companies. The majority answered, as summarized by one judge, “Yes. We are hungry, we cannot endure, and we are prepared to take anything that any party gives us”.


Judges’ Greatest Preoccupation: The Hospital and the School Before the Court?

Health coverage was at the forefront of the judges’ responses whenever we asked them about their current situation. They described it as “the biggest problem”. Judges lost one of their “privileges” that was the envy of many other professions, namely the almost complete health coverage that their Solidarity Fund had provided since its inception in the 1980s and activation in the 1990s. This health and education coverage, in addition to the home loan facilities and other benefits, was their source of wellbeing and peace of mind over the previous two decades, even before their salaries were improved in 2011. Today, the coverage has waned, and the reassurance it provided is now but a distant memory. Even when mechanisms to improve incomes were established at the end of 2022, the situation regarding health and education coverage remained very bad. Today, the fund’s coverage has not stopped completely, but it can no longer be relied on because of its scantness, fluctuations, and delays: health coverage became largely nonexistent as the lira lost more and more of its value, but the fund had begun offering approximately 50% coverage by the time we conducted the interviews in spring of 2023 (here too, information varied from one judge to another). The judges confirmed that the limited financial aid they received after 2022 does not allow them to afford costly private health insurance. Their repeated statement that they are “exposed in terms of health” reflects an intense feeling of social vulnerability.


“Our priorities have changed. You now fear you or your children getting sick.” (Interview)


“Some time ago, I went to two laboratories. They rejected me, telling me that they’re no longer contracted with us. I called the fund. It turns out that very few laboratories are still contracted. The same goes for the hospitals. I live in [neighborhood omitted]. If I go to the hospitals [in that area], they don’t admit me. There is only the hospital [X], and you pay a difference. Today, a single hospital visit is disastrous. One hospital visit is enough to put you in life-long debt.” (Interview)


There are multiple cases in which judges waited at the doors of hospitals in order to secure a USD sum from personal sources before they could receive treatment. Here too, colleagues’ experiences came up repeatedly in the testimonies. In one case, a judge who broke her hand could not go to hospital to have an operation until she secured the money from a private source. In another, a judge has a son with special needs that are no longer covered by the fund.


“Today, we are forced to beg in order to go to the doctor or hospital.” (Interview)


The cost of education is another source of anxiety for judges with children now that a large portion of private school fees are being requested in USD while the judges’ salaries remain unchanged. Judges said that they would not mind enrolling their children in public schools if the conditions and standard of these schools were improved. They consider public schools unfit at present because a ceiling could collapse on their children or the teacher might not show up (interview).


“The schools now ask for USD. We feel like the school is asking for our salary for ten years. We’ve started thinking about how we can continue our lives.” (Interview)


We were told that the Supreme Judicial Council tried to haggle with the schools, to no avail (interview). Judges were left to do so individually, if and however they wanted. The means of negotiation varied based on each judge’s situation, contacts, and capabilities and the policy of each school. For example, we learned that “six or seven judges got together” and met with the principal of a well-known private school in Beirut. They told her that although they understood that the administration was requesting USD fees to pay teachers’ dues and to maintain the academic standard, which ultimately benefits their children, they could not pay such sums. The bittersweet outcome was that judges were exempted from the USD portion of the fee for the previous two years. In another case, a judge asked the school’s lawyer to intercede and get him exempted from the USD portion, namely USD480. He was embarrassed to tell us about resorting to this means, which some might consider crooked and improper for a judge. He also said that the school later demanded he pay the sum after it learned of the new mechanisms supporting judges (at the beginning of 2023).


“The schools are showing us no mercy. They keep charging us left and right in USD. This is the latest bill, from a few days ago. I paid USD500. In other words, the USD I got from the mechanism I paid to the school.” (Interview)


Not all schools have treated judges in this understanding manner. One private school in Beirut that charges a large USD fee did not haggle, although it occasionally accepted the sum in Lebanese lira. The school also asked the judge to pay USD600 for the following year to reserve his children’s seats because it no longer trusts judges’ ability to pay in future. Hence, he had to ask his father for help. Judges have fallen to the bottom of the ladder of trust in Lebanese society, at least among the middle class, which they were previously leading. This is further evidence of the deterioration of their social position in relation to other professions in Lebanon, even legal professions like lawyering.


While these partial solutions may give some judges limited peace of mind, the crisis has turned many of them into people who haggle schools and other institutions across the country, putting them into an ambiguous and sensitive social position where they do not know when exactly they exceed the bounds of acceptability. Judges were taught to avoid such situations in the Institute of Judicial Studies and by judicial traditions, and they do not know exactly what the other party expects of them after such a favor or what networks of quid pro quo they may have unwittingly entered. Lebanese judges have not trained for these situations, which have become a key part of their daily activities during the crisis. The difficulty facing judges increases daily, creating a crushing mental burden that judges must deal with every morning and that could gradually lead to further normalization of practices and situations that most judges previously rejected.

The school occasionally constitutes another source of embarrassment for judges. There, their children meet children of other people whose incomes have become much higher than those of judges. A judge told us that his son recently confronted him asking him to provide what his friends at school have. The judge described his great embarrassment about being unable to meet this request. He has “persevered, worked, and made an important career for himself” only to find that he cannot afford what his son wants for Eid and is going into debt to educate his children: “My son tells me, work on something and make money. So-and-so’s father earns in USD” (interview).

A poor judge, an anxious judge, a worried judge, a bitter judge, an angry judge, a “haggling” judge, an indebted judge, a “begging” judge: all these paradigms of judges passed before us in our field research in 2023 and perhaps overshadow the paradigm of the confident judge who adjudicates among the people. These exceptional material conditions have large effects on judges’ mental state and ability to prioritize their work and cases. In the next article, we will examine this daily moral toll paid by judges, along with every person who is compelled by circumstances to enter a Lebanese court and finds the judge either absent or distracted by livelihood concerns.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

Share the article

Mapped through:

Articles, Lebanon, Lebanon Magazine, Legislative Observatory, Right to Education, Right to Health

For Your Comments

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