The Armenian Rights Watch Committee (ARWC) of the Armenian Bar Association is greatly concerned by the intention to go on strike recently announced by a group of attorneys in Armenia. We find this a regrettable turn of events based on the facts as we understand them.
First, we note that courtroom security personnel throughout Armenia, tasked with the responsibility of keeping chambers of justice safe, have a number of appropriate tools at their disposal in undertaking their important duties.
That said, when confronting members of the bar at the gates of justice, it should be appreciated that lawyers are “officers of the court” irrespective of the side of the aisle from which they carry out their duties: prosecution or defense, plaintiff or defendant. The role of security personnel in courthouses is to promote respect for the administration of justice and uphold the respect that officers of the court and the court itself deserve. This role is a fundamental tenet of any modern, functioning justice system.
We understand, of course, that there should be reasonable safeguards to promote security. With respect to courtroom access, we do note that in most countries all persons entering courthouse facilities, along with all items carried by them, are subject to appropriate screening and search by security personnel. Certainly, persons may be requested to provide identification and to state the nature of their business in the courthouse. Anyone refusing to cooperate with these security measures is understandably denied entrance to the courthouse.
However, the ARWC cautions that the practices of police in courthouses across Armenia must be executed with access to justice in mind—and should be weary of overreaching under color of law. Security measures must respect an uninterrupted “right to counsel” of incarcerated citizens of Armenia who, of course, remain innocent until proven guilty. It is undeniable that, for attorneys to provide “effective assistance of counsel,” they often must move back and forth between the jails and the courts. To be fair, the onus to provide such facility to legal counsel—without unreasonable hindrance—falls squarely on the shoulders of law enforcement, whether courtroom security personnel and/or jailhouse staff.
The possibility of overplaying the security card is real, even where it may not be intentional: it is easy to understand how a lawyer may be hindered by security personnel who, while implementing courtroom security measures, unknowingly or unwittingly circumvent a litigant’s access to counsel and, in doing so, oppress justice. We think the time is ripe for relevant policies to be reviewed with serious consideration of this tenuous balance and, upon such assessment, clear direction be provided to all parties involved and engaged in the process.
This said, we are concerned about representations made by some of the lawyers who have declared an intention to go on strike. These attorneys, for some time now, have alleged that some of the criminal cases currently pending in Yerevan courthouses have become an excuse to clamp down on lawyers who are entering the courthouse and to subject them to unreasonably invasive searches.
Of course, the ARWC is concerned with any measure that constitutes an unreasonable search of lawyers as they enter a courthouse. To be clear, the protection of confidential client information and the fundamental nature of the attorney-client privilege is seriously compromised when courthouse security is given permission to rummage through attorneys’ case files, for example. There is an important, meaningful balance here—one which many societies governed by the rule of law have been able to embrace and implement in the modern era of heightened security risks. There is surely room to provide safety and protection in the judicial process while not trampling the very legal privileges and principles for which the judicial process stands. And, surely still, we are confident that such balance can be struck not only in Armenia’s legal code—but implemented at the doors of its courthouses and jails as well.
The ARWC remains concerned that the recent turn of events may paint a rather bleak picture: that there is a growing lack of respect for the role of the practicing bar in the justice system. We do hope that the impasse remains an isolated instance which can be addressed and remedied timely by the Chamber of Advocates of the Republic, comprised of well over 1800 Armenian lawyers. Certainly, should we be called upon, we stand ready to assist.