Legal Matters

Abdullah Al-Alsheikh, the Minister of Justice, has recently given a lengthy interview (Arabic) to Asharq Al-Awsat where he made some interesting comments about the performance of the ministry and other related issues. MOJ has become under increased scrutiny following bizarre judgments in some high profile cases such as the Qatif Girl case.

I was disappointed to read that a committee from MOJ is working on the US$ 1.86bn plan the King ordered to overhaul the judicial system in the country. How can the very same people who created, or inherited, the current system, and didn’t see anything wrong with it until the King spoke, be responsible to implement the kind of radical changes proposed in the plan when they seemed for a very long time rather comfortable with the status quo?

I think it would have been better to bring people from outside the establishment to fix it as I don’t expect much from those who didn’t produce much in the first place. Actually, using the word “system” to describe the present situation of the legal process is some sort of a compliment. “Chaos” is the word I would use to describe what citizens have to endure in the courts.

We suffer from a sever shortage in the number of judges: the idea of having only 600 judges to serve the needs of 25m population is simply incomprehensible. According to legal experts, this shortage is the result of the current method of choosing judges which is based on regional, tribal and religious considerations, instead of qualifications and experience. The direct effect of this situation is that most cases takes years and years to be resolved, violating the basic human right of access to a fair speedy trial.

Another urgent matter that MOJ must take care of is the obvious need to a clear set of codified laws. Currently, people are at the whims of judges who can in the absence of any specific reference pass completely different judgments on very similar cases. Say someone stole a car; he could be lucky to catch a pleasant judge who happens to be in a good mood that day and sentence him to three weeks of community service, or he could be unlucky to catch a cranky judge on a bad day and sentence him to 150 lashes plus 2 months in jail.

The minister said they are still studying codifying the Sharia, and they will continue doing that over the next few months. I am afraid that after they take forever to finish this study they may conclude that they don’t need to codify anything. Unlikely, but possible considering the recent history of this ministry.