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BY MOBIN PANDIT
Qatar has a relatively strong and independent judiciary but people generally complain that trials take time to begin and drag on once they do, leading to backlogs.
The other problem is that the Courts of Appeal do not stop execution of lower court judgments in cases such as rent disputes or bank loan defaults where defendants need and plead for interim relief via a temporary stay (see box).
Also, lawyers are generally accused of creating situations where court cases drag on as it is alleged their intention is to continue to ‘milk’ clients by charging them fee “hearing after hearing”.
An effective way, say critics, is to legally fix the fees of lawyers — an idea lawyers vehemently oppose. Critics maintain it is primarily due to the ‘exorbitant’ fees lawyers charge that filing lawsuits is quite an expensive affair in Qatar.
The current practice whereby a lawyer’s fee is decided mutually by him and his client is perfect, insists Ali Eisa Al Khulaifi, a prominent lawyer.
A lawyer’s fee largely depends on the nature of a court case and the documents available with a client. “Sometimes we have to work very hard to put documentation in order,” says Mohsin Thiyab Al Suwaidi, justifying his argument that the question of a lawyer’s fee should better be left to him and his client.
As for those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer, in criminal cases at least, the state provides counsels free of charge to defend them, he insists.
So a lawyer’s fee has nothing to do with delays in court proceedings, says Al Suwaidi. He and others in the legal fraternity instead blame what they say are archaic procedures for delays in disposing of court cases.
More often than not, court cases are delayed due to the failure of one or several accused in a criminal trial or defendants in civil or family lawsuits to be present in court, say legal circles.
They point to the tragic Villaggio fire incident of May 28, 2012 that claimed 19 lives — 13 of them small children — whose trial could not begin on September 6 as scheduled since two of the eight accused failed to be present in court.
The hearing was adjourned to October 11 but the duo, having been based overseas, could not be present again. The hearing had to be put off to October 23 as a result, and fresh summons were issued to them.
Lawyers say procedures to serve summons on an accused or on a defendant are too time-consuming. Under the law, it is a court’s prerogative to issue summons. In a criminal case a court official normally delivers the notice (summons) to an accused or number of accused.
If the notification fails to evoke response from an accused, it is sent again. If there is no response yet again, the notice is displayed at the main entrance of the residence of the accused or the defendant.
If it fails to serve the purpose, the court puts up a notice in a local newspaper. This is the last notification. If the accused does not respond, the court begins its proceedings and verdict in the case is delivered in absentia.
Sometimes, it is the public prosecution which asks an accused to come and collect the summons.
“The problem with court verdicts issued in absentia is that at the request of the convict, the case can be reopened and the court has to begin hearings afresh,” says a lawyer. “People do this to bide for time. This is a tactic to delay the cases.” This is the most common cause of delays in deciding court cases in Qatar.
“In this era of the Internet, we are still relying on the age-old means of serving the summons. The law regulating procedure codes (both criminal and civil), therefore, needs to be changed,” insists Al Suwaidi.
But many in legal circles allege it is the lawyers themselves who advise a client — an accused or defendant — not to receive summons so as to avoid being present in court and prolong court proceedings.
Then, in this expatriate-dominated society where the accused or defendants in many cases are residents, serving the summons becomes challenging as people abscond or change their addresses.
“In Qatar, it is a punishable offence not to inform the nearest police station in the case of change of address,” says Al Suwaidi.
Citizens normally don’t change their homes, but expatriates frequently do, he insists. “Unfortunately, there is little public awareness about this law.”
Civil and marital disputes and disputes over inheritance and child custody (among divorced couples) are some of the cases that are more vulnerable to delays, say legal sources.
They cite the example of a Qatari woman who has been fighting a court battle for the custody of her four children for more than six years but her former husband manages to hoodwink the court by insisting that he is close to a rapprochement with her.
“Divorce and child custody cases take a lot of time to decide and that makes women the biggest victims of the delays,” says a lawyer. The saying ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ aptly fits the situation of the hapless litigants, he adds.
But many in the legal fraternity say the courts take time in deciding such cases as these are sensitive litigations and linked directly to social and family stability.
It is the family courts that hear divorce and child custody cases and they make sure that all avenues for a mutual reconciliation are exhausted before delivering verdict.
Couples filing divorce pleas are first referred to the Family Consultancy Centre (FCC) for a possible rapprochement. In marital, child custody and inheritance cases, the courts also have the power to appoint a panel of people the parties trust or third parties so they could try for an out-of-court settlement and save the court’s time.
“There are people who sometimes come to us offering huge sums for taking up their cases and all they want is a case to drag on. This is unethical so I don’t accept such cases,” said Al Suwaidi. “There is professional ethics and we must stick to it.”
However, an epic litigation that legal circles cite as being the most lingering one in Qatar’s judicial history is a 20-year-old dispute over inheritance among 22 brothers and sisters whose late father, who had three wives, left behind properties worth a staggering QR7bn in Qatar as well as in Bahrain and the UAE.
Lawyers say every time a verdict is in sight, one of the litigants comes up with a document showing his father had willed a particular property to him. This is dragging the case on and on.
Knowledgeable circles say some civil, family or martial disputes that come to the courts can be solved amicably with the mediation of the community.
Then, it is believed that in some cases, people resort to court battles just to settle scores with rivals and not to seek justice.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the country’s judicial system remains overburdened, with those concerned calling for hiring more judges and administrative staff to cope with the mounting pressure.
There are plans to reform and expand the judicial system but those files are gathering dust, claims Al Suwaidi.
The country’s population has been growing and so is the number of cases, say lawyers arguing emphatically for expansion and reform of the judicial system.
True. Last year, some 87,000 cases were filed in the Qatari courts, up around 4,500 over 2010, and the courts could decide only 79 percent of them, statistics suggest. But some in legal circles say the backlog of undecided cases isn’t much as compared to other countries, including some in the neighboring GCC region. The Peninsula