New law on Turkish bar associations

Damaging judicial impartiality

While the government claims the new lawyers' act will be more pluralistic and democratic, lawyers believe it will harm the right to free trial and split them down political lines. By Ayşe Karabat

"Justice is the foundation of the state" is written on the walls of Turkish courthouses. But lawyers and human rights activists believe this is no longer the case in Turkey, where the already fragile foundation has received yet another blow.

A controversial law allowing sweeping changes to the functioning of bar associations passed in parliament on 11 July with the votes of the ruling Justice and Development Party and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The law oversees the split of current bars and the creation of alternative ones. Experts believe this could lead to many bar associations mushrooming across the country based on lawyers' political views.

Bar associations were neither consulted nor were they allowed into parliament during the discussions on the bill at the General Assembly despite its direct impact on them.

Lawyers and bar associations overwhelmingly expressed their opposition in a public statement. The chairs and members of bar associations also marched to Ankara late last month, only to be met by police. They also carried out a sleepless night-time "justice watch" in nearby public parks. All have, however, been in vain.

The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) has already taken the new law to the Constitutional Court, and bar associations have assured their staunch opposition to the law.

Lawyers and citizens protest about the government's plans to reform the bar associations, Istanbul, June 2020 (photo: DW/S. Ocak)
In late June, lawyers across the country took to the streets to voice their opposition to the Turkish government's plan to reform the bar associations. In Ankara (see top photo), lawyers staged a sit-in when they encountered a police barricade on their march; in Istanbul (pictured here), thousands joined a protest against the planned reforms. Experts believe the reform could lead to many bar associations mushrooming across the country based on lawyers' political views

"Rule by division"

Before the new law was passed, every lawyer in Turkey was obliged to register with one bar association in the city where he or she practices law. Every province has one bar, as long as there are 30 registered lawyers there. There are 80 bar associations across Turkey, which has 81 provinces. Two small and remote provinces share one bar association.

But the new law envisages that in cities with over 5,000 lawyers, any group with at least 2,000 lawyers can set up its own bar association. This rule will primarily affect the country's largest cities, Istanbul (with more than 47,000 lawyers), Ankara (with 17,500) and İzmir (with almost 10,000). The Antalya Bar Association in the country's south has fewer than 5,000 members. However, all together, they account for more than half of all registered lawyers in Turkey. These cities are naturally also hotspots for judicial problems.

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