Monday, May 21, 2007

Backwards legal system

I know this guy who lives in a foreign country in Africa (can't remember the name... begins with a "C" I think. Cameroon, perhaps? Chad? I thought it ended with an "a", but I can't be sure) who has a local lawyer as a friend. The lawyer tells him all about the country's legal system and how screwy it is. Once in a while when my friend and I get together for a drink, he tells me all of these crazy stories about the courts.

It seems that judges in said country only make about $250 per month. There are no laws or restriction preventing contact between an judge and the lawyers as there are in the US, so the opportunity for bribery abounds. In fact, it would seem that in a civil case, bribery is not only expected, but rather demanded. My friend says he has been present when judges have called his lawyer friend who sits before them and asked them to pay their bills, apartment rent, restaurant tabs, etc.

Apparently each side in a civil case takes part in a illegal bidding war for the judges decision before the case has even been heard in open court. When the trial begins, the verdict is often predetermined before a single argument is made. At various levels of court, the bribes get more expensive. A typical Supreme Court case will net a judge around $40,000, and they can sit multiple cases per week.

There is no separation of powers as there in the US. The legal system is entirely controlled by the government political party. Technically, the prosecutor's office has the ability to police the judges and they are able to bring them up on corruption charges if they deem fit, but they must get the government's permission first. Unless the judge has done something to make enemies in the government, then the prosecutor is probably committing career suicide by actually trying to do this.

In civil court cases, the decision is made by money. In criminal court cases, it seems you are pretty much guilty until... well, you're just guilty. Being a judge or a defense lawyer in a criminal case is not the best gig in the world. If a defense lawyer defends his client and it turns out later that the client is guilty, the defense lawyer himself can be tried and put in prison. The judge doesn't have it much better. If a judge deems a defendant innocent and he later is proven to be guilty, the prosecutor's office can have the judge arrested and tried as well.

It seems that in this particular country's legal system, many lawyers and judges are quite disenchanted. Many leave the profession after a few years of practice because of personal risk from the anti-corruption office or ethical issues. Many judges leave because the only way they can make money is to do so illegally. Most go on to become businessmen and women, starting a company, or running a restaurant.

Hearing these stories about such an unfair, backwards legal system makes me happy that I am a citizen of a country like the United States, who's governmental powers are kept in balance by each other.