After dismissing about 90 percent of the country's lawyers late last year, Azerbaijan has taken the first step toward what it says will improve the quality of legal help in the country. But the early results suggest that Azerbaijanis, especially outside the capital, will continue to struggle to find legal help.
On January 28, the Azerbaijan Bar Association held its first bar exam since 2014. About 1,900 applicants took the test and 607 got high enough scores to pass on to the next round, which will be based on personal interviews.
But critics complain this group will hardly replace the roughly 8,000 lawyers that authorities abruptly barred from practicing law late last year.
Until November, Azerbaijan had a two-tiered legal system in which vəkillər were licensed bar members and hüquqşünaslar were lawyers who had not passed the bar but could represent clients in non-criminal courts.
There were about 8,000 hüquqşünaslar, however, and only 934 registered vəkillər. That makes roughly nine lawyers per 100,000 people in Azerbaijan, a ratio 18 times lower than the European average. In a decree formalizing the new rules in November, President Ilham Aliyev instructed the bar association to “take appropriate measures to increase the number of lawyers in order to ensure citizens' rights to receive high-quality legal assistance.”
The January bar exam was highly anticipated, as it was to be the first step in rectifying that gap. “The issue of lack of lawyers in the regions will be solved as a result of these opportunities,” said Anar Bagirov, the head of the bar association, after the test was administered.
Many are skeptical. Lawyers surveyed by Eurasianet criticized the exam for being excessively focused on memorization. It also eliminated logic questions, which had been staples of previous bar exams.
One lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize his chances in the next round, said that complaints were common after the exam. “Nearly 30 percent of the questions were based on figures. There was no chance to find an answer in reference to your logic or experience. The only way to pass was by memorizing and learning some unnecessary details by heart,” the lawyer said.
The structure of the test also disadvantaged aspiring lawyers from the provinces, some worried.
Of those who took the exam, 63 percent were from Baku and 37 percent from outside the capital, according to data from the bar association. Of those who passed this stage of the exam, the regional diversity was “not bad,” Sahib Mammadov, chairman of the Citizens' Labor Rights Protection League, a government-affiliated advocacy group, was quoted as saying by local media. “I hope that in the next interview, most of them will be able to pass to the next stage.”
Of those who passed, about 200 were from outside Baku, Farhad Najafov, the head of the bar association's administration, told Eurasianet. “Two hundred lawyers will definitely fill in the gap in the provinces,” he said.
Yet many of those 200 are likely registered outside Baku but working in the capital, said one lawyer who passed the first stage of the exam and asked to remain anonymous. “I am one of those 200 lawyers. But the fact is that I won't work in the province, I will work in Baku. Being registered to the province does not mean that those people have to go and work in the provinces,” the lawyer said.
“This means that we are talking about only a handful lawyers for the provinces,” said Ruslan Aliev, a lawyer who has advocated against the new regulations. Aliev said that the test seemed to emphasize questions of criminal and international law, with which rural lawyers have less experience.
“To my mind, only 5 percent of the successful lawyers might be from the provinces, which means about 40 lawyers maximum. That is a very low figure for the 60 regions of Azerbaijan.”
It does appear that one early speculation about the government's move – that it was aimed at disqualifying opposition or human-rights lawyers – may have been premature.
One provision that appeared to disqualify independent lawyers, relating to documentation of their work history, was lifted in December, a move that opened the way for most of the human-rights lawyers who had been hoping to take the test.
However, the next stage of the exam – the interview – is more subjective. And independent lawyers complain that the bar association is controlled by the government and has been systematically disbarring human-rights lawyers.
For example, in recent months two lawyers were disbarred after defending political prisoners and opposition figures. “The attitude toward lawyers who appeared in political cases can be seen by what happened to Yalchin Imanov and Fakhraddin Mehdiyev,” said Annagi Hajibayli, former head of the Azerbaijan Lawyers Association. “The bar association is not independent and their decisions are the decisions of the authoritarian government rather than the association itself.”
Still, many independent lawyers remain hopeful that the commission will be fair to their colleagues and not blacklist human-rights lawyers.
“After such a hard exam, our fate will depend on the decision of a small group. We still hope that the bar association will be loyal to its promise and will be more democratic and approach its upcoming colleagues with more empathy,” Aliev said.
Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance Azerbaijani reporter.