Saudi Arabia ramps up efforts for women legal professionals
Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Justice has issued 59 law practice licenses for Saudi women for 2018, it announced this month.
The issuance brings up the number of female lawyers in Saudi Arabia to 244 today. More importantly, it highlights the pace at which Saudi leadership has moved in granting licenses for women to practice law; the past three months alone account for more than a quarter of the total licenses granted for female lawyers over the past few years.
In its annual census, the Ministry of Justice reported an increase of 113% in the number of licenses granted to women lawyers in the past year compared with the previous year; a total of 83 licenses were granted to female lawyers, the largest in comparison with the years before it.
Moreover, the ministry has revealed that the number of female graduates specializing in legal fields across Saudi universities has witnessed a significant growth, in line with the number of license applications it has been receiving from female students.
Saudi women had been appearing and pleading in courts for over forty years under Saudi Arabia’s citizenship rights, rather than professional practice laws and licenses. The Ministry of Justice has previously stated that Saudi law grants citizens the right to defend and plead for their own cases, and on behalf of others by power of attorney.
In 2007, demands intensified – particularly by judges – for a more prominent and clearly defined representation of women legal professionals in court proceedings; particularly for their practice of law under an official license, rather than power of attorney, and under an equally well-defined legal system.
Female lawyers’ demands voiced further concerns around the difficulty and reluctance of women defendants and plaintiffs to confide in male lawyers, especially when it came to personal status cases. More women in the legal and judiciary system would help fill an important gap in the litigation process, and enable women to obtain their legal rights. To this end, a number of female lawyers launched the campaign “I Am a Lawyer”, fronted by legal consultant Bayan Zahran, who’d addressed a number of concerned parties and stakeholders in Saudi Arabia on the importance of women in practicing law at the service of the wider community.
In response to these demands, the Ministry of Justice pledged to officially legitimize women’s practice of law in Saudi Arabia. But on-the-ground progress on this front was hurdled by bureaucratic processes and conflict of opinions by concerned parties.
In 2010, there were nearly 2,000 Saudi women lawyers appearing and pleading before Saudi courts by proxy, without any recognition by the Ministry of Justice. That same year, a committee was set up by the Ministry of Justice to interview Saudi women lawyers, in preparatory steps to grant them official law practice licenses; that is, granted they meet prerequisites and qualifications, chief among which was a certificate of experience entailing a legal training period ranging from two to three years.
The first major step by the Ministry of Justice allowing women to practice law came in October 2013, whereby licenses were granted to four women lawyers: Jihan Kurban, Amira Al Gogani, Bayan Zahran, and Sarah Al Omari. The licenses enabled them to plead for all types of cases before different courts.
In a few months, Bayan Zahran would open the Kingdom’s first law firm for a female Saudi lawyer in January 2014. She went on to work on both individual and institutional clients, including both men and women.
In previous statements, Zahran claimed that she did not face social backlash while practicing law, and rather positive reactions and receptiveness within courts for women legal professionals. In only two years’ time, the number of acknowledged Saudi female lawyers reached 1,000 lawyers – up from a 100 at the time – between those who officially held a license to practice, and those who had begun their training period, according to a previous statement by the Saudi Bar Association.
Despite the progress, female legal professionals have been repeatedly calling on solving a larger crisis facing their professional growth today when it comes to training regulations.
The legal system requires at least three years of work experience to obtain a license for professional practice. But by law, female lawyers are required to have at least five years of experience for their employment, which includes their enrollment at law offices for training. This time lapse has been causing great delays for Saudi women to join law firms during their training period.
Despite the fact that conditions for legal training are flexible, not limited to law firms, and extended to any legal proceedings and work across public and private institutions and authorities, obstacles arise when it comes to requirements imposed by these parties. Many governmental and private authorities have put in place rather stringent conditions on the experience and qualifications for women they have on board.
Against these hurdles, Saudi female lawyers power through. In October 2017, women grabbed the majority of prizes in a competition organized by the Saudi Bar Association for academic excellence – whereby 150 female lawyers and versus 50 male lawyers took part in the competition.