Turkish law on bar associations undermines judicial independence – HRW

A proposed law on Turkey’s bar associations will further undermine judicial independence, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in statement on Tuesday.

“If the amendments are passed, the real and likely risk is that judicial authorities whose independence and impartiality is seriously in question, will seek to identify the political opinion of lawyers on the basis of their membership of politically divided bar associations, and to allow this to improperly influence and bias their judicial decision-making. This will further damage the already weakened impartiality of the judiciary,” HRW said. 

“As lawyers are a key element of the justice system, it is doubtful whether public confidence in the independence of the justice system can be maintained when bar associations are divided along political lines,” HRW added.

The Turkish government proposed a new draft law in June 2020 amending Turkey’s Law on Lawyers. The draft legislation significantly reduces the representation of lawyers from Turkey’s main cities at the national Union of Turkish Bar Associations. It proposes that in provinces with over 5,000 lawyers, any group of at least 2,000 lawyers can set up their own bar association. 

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party argues that the formation of more bar associations would ensure a more democratic and pluralistic system. However, the majority of such associations, as well as many lawyers and activists, argue that the real intent of the draft law is to disempower existing associations in larger cities which have criticised the government for its violations of human rights and erosion of the rule of law.

“Whenever a critical bar association reveals a human rights violation or criticises the government’s human rights policies, a counter-statement would be likely to be issued by another bar association, weakening the value of the critique and politicising the matter,” HRW said. 

The Turkish government’s own statements about the plan, and the timing and means by which it is being introduced, shows it has a political purpose rather than any aim to advance legal standards, HRW said. 

“The proposed law is politically divisive, will end proportional representation of bars at the national level in the Union of Turkish Bars, and will contribute to undermining the appearance of independence and impartiality in the justice system,” HRW said.