A new bill that bans foreigners from practicing law and authorises the establishment of legal firms for the first time has been drafted by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
This is in response to an argument that had ensued a few months back on whether Ethiopian born foreign nationals could practice law in the country or not.
The Ministry has denied licenses to foreign national lawyers, sighting the proclamation of Federal Courts Advocates Licensing & Registration issued in 2000.
“Right of legal advocacy is not open for everyone,” it states.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) on the other hand, has been arguing that Ethiopian born foreign nationals should be able to practice law under local courts. It based its argument on the proclamation of Foreign Nationals of Ethiopian Origin issued in 2002, that grants the Diaspora with the right to exercise rights in their country of origin.
However, lack of provisions that neither specifically prohibit nor deny this issue in both proclamations had opened the door for interpretation.
The bill drafted by the MoJ, scheduled for discussion with legal experts on Saturday, October 22, 2011, puts an end to that.
The bill, titled Advocacy Licence & Administration Proclamation, specifically requires an advocate to be an Ethiopian national. If approved by the Parliament, the bill repeals the Federal Courts Advocates Licensing & Registration, the source of the debate.
Mulugeta Aregawi, who teaches Constitution and Media Law at the Addis Abeba University, was one of the debaters on the issue. He become an American citizen by naturalization but has been a licensed lawyer in the United States(US) since before his nationality change. He had applied for a licence in Ethiopia and was denied.
In a commentary published in Fortune on May, 2011, he had cited the proclamation of Foreign Nationals of Ethiopian Origin, which only restricts participation in legislative body, judgeship, working in national defence, security and foreign affairs to Ethiopians. This would mean that all other professions are open to all, citizen or not.
“I am both disappointed and glad,” Mulugeta, who can no longer raise his issue if the bill is passed, told Fortune. “I am happy that they recognized the proclamation in effect has holes and is open for interpretation on the matter.”
The bill also denies licensing for government employees and those who have permanent jobs in public companies or work privately with the exception of those who teach in higher institutions.
Those who have worked as judges, public prosecutors or investigating police officers can apply for a license two years after they have left their position, according to the bill. The bill also raises the minimum experience requirement to apply for a licence for the first time from a two year to a five year minimum.
Along with these provisions, the bill allows for the establishment of law firms for the first time in the form of “Ordinary Partnership” which can only render advocacy services.
However, it prohibits members of a law firm from providing advocacy service individually and become a member of more than one legal firm.
The establishment of the firms will encourage specialization, sustainability and more accountability on lawyers; which explains the reason for the provision.
Professionals in the field agree.
“It will increase the confidence of clients since the firm will take the advocacy contract, not the individual,” a lawyer, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Fortune.
Other provisions in the bill include repercussions on lawyers who fail to renew their license or violate disciplinary provisions with a fine of 1,000 Br to 20,000 Br and imprisonment of six months to two years.