Legal shake-up to revolutionise Saudi justice

Human rights and business environment to benefit from legal reforms, experts say.

A royal decree this week reorganising the Saudi legal system is set to revolutionise Saudi justice, improving human rights and the business environment in the conservative Islamic state, experts say.

Commentators have long said the legal system, established decades ago when the desert country was largely closed to the outside world, was ill-equipped to deal with the modern world.

Judges are trained in Islamic law, lack specialisation in modern legal areas and have wide discretion to issue verdicts in the absence of codified law. Defendants lack recourse to appeal or even rights to proper legal representation.

Much of that will change with reforms outlined on Monday in a decree by King Abdullah that sets aside seven billion riyals ($1.87 billion) to build new court houses and train judges.

The decree sets up two Supreme Courts for the general courts and administrative courts which each are the final recourse after courts of first instance and appeals courts, said Hassan Al-Mulla, who heads Saudi Arabia's nascent Bar Association.

"The Supreme Courts are both new. In the normal use of wording, they are courts of cassation," he said.

They replace the Supreme Judicial Council, headed by hardline cleric Saleh Al-Lohaidan, which will now only review administrative issues like judges' salaries and appointees.

Al-Mulla said the decree also sets up specialised court circuits within the general court system for commercial, labour and personal status cases - a move which has been expected since Saudi Arabia joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2005.

Labour disputes were previously dealt with through ministerial tribunals and the legal system did not allow for internationally-recognised processes of appeal.

"Anything which helps to clarify and codify the application of law in Saudi Arabia is positive and welcome," said Bernard Savage, the EU representative in Riyadh.

"It goes in the general direction of improving how easy it is to do business and how well reforms are going."

Currently only some commercial law is codified, but commentator Zoheir Al-Harithy, who works with the official Human Rights Commission, said the government was due soon to finish a major project to codify Islamic law and create a penal code.

He said the 7 billion riyals set aside for the reforms showed the government was serious about implementation and that judges are already involved in preparatory training. The government has not said how long implementation could take.

"This is a major turning point in the Saudi criminal justice system. There are more guarantees for offenders and it creates specialisation [of courts]," Harithy said. "We've been asking for this, and now it's been done."

The reforms could mean a reduction in the influence of clerics of Saudi Arabia's hardline Wahhabi Islam in the legal system. At present all judges are graduates of Islamic law colleges, but the reforms imply a need for new types of training. - Reuters

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