x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Absentee lawyers 'put strain on courts'

In Abu Dhabi, problem is worse in summer because of holidays; clients who feel they have been badly represented advised to file civil claims.

ABU DHABI // Absentee lawyers who fail to turn up in court are damaging their clients' interests, wasting court time and putting a strain on the judicial system in Abu Dhabi, senior legal officials said yesterday.

At least one criminal case a day is held up because a lawyer is absent, and some cases have been put off for months as judges wait for lawyers to represent their clients. The strain placed on the system is particularly apparent during the summer, when judges take their scheduled holidays and courts operate less frequently. In three current cases, a pregnant woman serving life in prison for drug smuggling has had her appeal delayed for three months because her lawyer has failed to appear; a lawyer who was paid Dh10,000 to represent a man jailed for forgery has never appeared in court; and yesterday a man charged with using drugs had his hearing adjourned because his lawyer was absent.

In yesterday's case, before the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court of First Instance, instead of appearing in person the lawyer provided his client with papers outlining what his defence should be. In Dubai, lawyers' attendance in court is closely monitored. If they miss a hearing or arrive late, the presiding judge can fine them Dh1,000. No such system is in place in Abu Dhabi. Jamila al Niyadi, head of the Ministry of Justice committee that deals with complaints against lawyers, said her panel had received 20 such complaints last month alone, and two lawyers had been referred to the Public Prosecution for failing to represent their clients.

Mrs al Niyadi advised clients to file a claim against their lawyers in civil court if they felt they had not been properly represented. "Defendants should come forward and complain about their attorneys when their absence from the court affects the course of their court case," she said. "A lot of defendants are not aware of their rights. They think their attorney should guarantee that the court acquit them. The lawyer knows the law more than they do, and lawyers always include in the contract that they could send someone else on their behalf when they are busy."

Chief Justice Shehab al Hammadi of the State Security Court said in court recently that the lack of reliable lawyers hurts defendants, wastes the court's time and puts a strain on lawyers who take up the slack. "We are often obliged to adjourn hearings only because the defendants cannot afford to appoint attorneys and not every lawyer is willing to volunteer his time," Justice al Hammadi said. One example involves a pregnant Palestinian woman sentenced to life in prison for smuggling drugs. She has had her appeal held up for at least three months because her lawyers have not appeared.

The woman, FA, was sentenced on April 13. Her original lawyer sent another lawyer to attend her appeal hearings, but that lawyer did not attend court. Justice Abdulrahman Bahloul of the Appeals Court then ordered another lawyer appointed; that lawyer also missed the next court date. On July 5, the court-appointed lawyer sent a colleague to attend on his behalf, which is illegal when the lawyer is appointed by the court.

In a second case, the family of a Bangladeshi man, NA, sentenced to four months in prison for forging documents to bring a 13-year-old boy into the country, told The National they paid a lawyer Dh10,000 to represent him. The lawyer has not appeared in court. He declined to comment. Yesterday, SS, a man charged with drug consumption, appeared before the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court of First Instance but had his hearing adjourned because his lawyer did not attend. Instead, the lawyer provided SS with papers outlining what his defence should be.

Mrs al Niyada said lawyers were obliged by law to exert full effort to defend their client. "If the attorney showed indifference, which happens very often, a defendant can lodge a complaint at the department," she said. "Many people hire an attorney without signing a contract. This encourages lawyers to either not show up or send another one on their behalf, depending on how honest they are. "When they sign the papers, defendants should make sure to include clear-cut conditions that would guarantee the lawyer exerts the right effort on the case he or she is representing."

Many defendants also have their cases delayed during the summer as judges take their scheduled holidays and courts operate less frequently. In Abu Dhabi, only new cases are heard, while trials that have already begun are put off until autumn. Dubai courts are open only a few days each week during the summer. hhassan@thenational.ae