For the pregnant woman jailed for life on charges of drug smuggling, the release of a candid appraisal by the Judicial Department of lawyers in Abu Dhabi may come as little relief. Her appeal was delayed three times this summer because her lawyer failed to show up in court to defend her. She is not the first victim of shoddy legal representation.
As The National reports today, many lawyers in Abu Dhabi have been truant in court or are under investigation for corruption. Their performance is often found wanting by judges.
"How do you rate yourself in terms of ethics?" a judge asked one lawyer who failed to study the evidence against his client before representing him. The lawyer did not realise that DNA evidence corroborated charges against the defendant. Examples of lawyers failing to understand their obligations to their clients and to the legal system are too many to list.
The low pay for court-appointed defence lawyers leaves too much room for under-performance and invites corruption. Moreover, the often arbitrary way in which defence lawyers are chosen for particular cases, rather than according to their specialisation, compounds these difficulties.
Abu Dhabi plans to dismiss those lawyers who fail their clients. That is a good start but addressing the difficulties within the legal system throughout the UAE will require more.
Judicial reform must be as urgent an effort as the UAE's commitment to improving health care and education. The rule of law is the backbone of a well-functioning and just society. Ensuring that those who are least equipped to speak for themselves have access to a competent defence is particularly important. When those called upon to speak on their behalf shirk their duties, the legal system itself is held in contempt.
In 2009, it was Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, in his capacity as Prime Minister of the UAE, who expressed his "utmost dissatisfaction" with the state of the judicial system. It was "20 years behind" where it should be, Sheikh Mohammed said. He warned that "we will not allow this to continue. We will not accept that people's cases and rights get stuck in courts".
Sheikh Mohammed's words should be kept in mind as the nation pursues judicial reform: "Justice ... is the cornerstone of economic prosperity, society's safety and security, and the shelter for the weak."