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Iranian Bar Associations: Struggle for Independence

Post-June 2009 Presidential election 

In 2009, less than a week after Iran's disputed June 12 presidential election and in the midst of a government crackdown on peaceful protesters and dissidents, a new challenge to the independence of the Bar was announced. On June 17, the “Revision to the Regulations of the Law of Independence of the Bar Associations” which was approved by the Head of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, was announced in the Official Gazette. It was supposed to take effect immediately and did not require approval by parliament or any other body. The revised Regulations would give the Judiciary the decisive role to approve membership of the Bar and lawyers’ licensing applications, thereby undermining the independence of the Bar. The Regulations would gravely undermine the Bar's independence, giving the government the ability to handpick the attorneys and deny political critics and human rights defenders the right to practice as lawyers.

Article 11 of the Regulations, for example, prescribed a five-member committee which should be established to make decisions on Bar membership and licensing applications and renewals. Three of its members should be appointed by the Head of the Judiciary, while the other two, appointed by the Bar Association's board of directors, must also have the Judiciary Chief's approval. Similarly, article 17 stated that the "deputy to the head of the Judiciary or an official representative of the Judiciary will be responsible for the signature of the licenses to practice law."

Notably, one week later, Ayatollah Shahroudi left the office and the new Head of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, took his place. These fast, and seemingly prior-planned, movements of the Judiciary, concurrent with media restrictions as well as the detention of hundreds of prominent activists and writers and several well-known human rights lawyers, shocked the Bar Associations and the legal community. Under such circumstances, although the Bar Associations had been severely hampered in their ability to voice objections to the law and its dangerous consequences, the Chairpersons of all Bar Associations called for an urgent meeting in the Central Bar Associations in Tehran and unanimously stated that due to its clear violation of the Law of Independence of the Bar Associations they would not follow the revised Regulations and its nullification must be pursued in the Court of Administrative Justice.

In fact, they were referring to article 22 of the Law of Independence according to which: “The Bar Association, taking this Law into consideration, shall prepare the required regulations for the affairs of the Bar such as the election [of the Board of Directors] of the Bar, etc. and the regulations shall take effect after approval of the Minister of Justice [currently the Head of the Judiciary]. The Bar Associations believed that they were responsible to prepare their required regulations, if they wished, and send it to the Head of the Judiciary for approval. In this case they had not prepared any revision to their old Regulations on the Law of Independence and nor did they intend to do so. Accordingly, they had not sent any regulations to be approved by the Head of the Judiciary. Indeed, they were informed about the new Regulations only after it was published in the Official Gazette.

To overcome this legal flaw, in article 99 of the new Regulations it was mentioned that “these Regulations have been prepared … on the basis of the proposal of the Bar Associations”. This allegation was strongly refused by the Bar Associations and they stressed that the Regulations had been prepared without knowledge or proposal or agreement of the Bar Associations.

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Lawyers, Right to counsel