On 31 October, the Azerbaijani parliament passed a law banning non-Bar lawyers and lay practitioners from representing clients in court. Critics worry that restricting the right to defend clients in court exclusively to members of the Bar Association will deal a blow to the independence of the legal profession and deprive many people of representation.
On 6 October, the chairman of the Supreme Court proposed amendments to Azerbaijan’s civil and administrative procedural codes, as well as the law “On defense lawyers and defense lawyers’ activities.” The amendments ban non-Bar lawyers and lay practitioners from representing clients in civil and administrative proceedings, meaning that only members of the Bar Association could be involved in such cases.
On 31 October, the amendments were passed by a majority vote and are scheduled to go into effect on 1 December, 2017.
While the amendments were still being debated, a group of lawyers launched a campaign against the proposed amendments. The “Group of Practicing Lawyers” explained in a brief that in 2003-2004, after joining the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan agreed to amend the Bar Act to expand the role of non-Bar lawyers and lay practitioners in the courts. In a country where the Bar Association is heavily politicized, this system has allowed many human rights lawyers to continue their work despite government pressure.
Among the negative consequences these amendments are likely to have, the Group of Practicing Lawyers cites a “strong monopoly” of the “government-controlled” Bar Association, and a drastic decrease in the “number of available lawyers who can represent litigants before courts.”
“It’s not right to leave ordinary people without a representative,” said MP Zahid Oruj during parliamentary debates on 31 October. “Currently, there are about 100,000 civil cases in the courts. Without an increase in the number of defense lawyers, it will be difficult to implement this process.”
According to the Group of Practicing Lawyers, there are about 900 Bar Association lawyers in Azerbaijan, and only 200 of them work outside of Baku. That means that Baku has 9-10 lawyers per 100,000 inhabitants, as opposed to the European average of 165, over 16 times greater.