Brief overview about the history of law profession and Bar Association

There is no specific date as to when the legal profession started in Syria: it is as old and deep-rooted as the Syrian civilization itself, ever since there were rules, courts, and organized communities in Damascus.

Historical documents indicate that legal advocacy in Damascus dates back to the BC era and continued through the Roman and Islamic times throughout today.

During the Ottoman rule, litigants could appoint whoever they wished as advocates to argue for them and defend their rights at courts. However, even though becoming an advocacy was open to everyone who desired to advocate for people; litigants only selected trustworthy people who were renowned for their knowledge, jurisprudence, eloquence, and intelligence. During that time, advocates were called Case Representative, Knowledgeable Representative or “Avocato,” adopted from Italian.


Realizing the value of this noble profession, the Ottomans established the ‘Law Office’ in the capital Istanbul and issued the ‘Legal Representatives Proceedings Law’ on 16 Dhu'l-Hijjah 1292 A.H, corresponding to 13/ 1/ 1876. Under the new law, practicing the legal profession or representing litigants before a court of law was allowed only for individuals officially licensed by the Ministry (tr: Nezareti) of the Imperial Divan of Judicial Rulings. The law also allowed for the establishment of a permanent association called the ‘Lawyers Association,’ which is considered the first lawyers syndicate to look into the affairs of legal representatives and determine the number of its members and how they are elected. This body was also responsible for defining the duration of the association, severance of membership, the conditions the association’s chairman and members must meet, electing a secretary and a treasurer, as well as the association’s functions and the mechanisms of investigating and facilitating the interests of poor litigants. Clearly, the provisions of the law only pertained to those individuals who completed the legal representation procedures in the recognized courts (Nizamiye Courts) associated with the Imperial Divan of Judicial Rulings. In other words, the implementation of the law was restricted to the capital, leaving out the remaining Ottoman Empire provinces. This, however, did not impede Damascene lawyers from having their own semi-independent system and association which simulated that of the capital.

1879-ottoman_court-froml (1)

When the number of legal representatives grew exponentially, the Legal Representatives (Lawyers) Law was issued in early Dhu'l-Hijjah 1301, corresponding to 8/ 9/ 1884. The new law stipulated that only graduates of the Law Office can undertake legal representation in a recognized court of law, be it in the Ottoman capital or other provinces. Individuals who obtained a license from foreign law offices also had the permission of practicing the profession. However, due to the sheer number of legal representatives that existed prior to the issuance of the law, and the challenges of enforcing it by limiting the profession to graduates of the Law Office, individuals who mastered the profession on their own or via private offices, met the conditions stipulated by the law and wanted to be legal representatives even if they were not licensed by the Law Office, were given the chance of taking a legal exam. If they passed, they would be given the license to practice the legal profession in the Ottoman Empire and abroad.

The provisions of the law stated that and exam candidate must be 25 years or older and able to verify his birthplace, his father’s name, family name, official post, craft and to which occupation it belonged, the office where he received his knowledge and general education and how he mastered the legal profession.

All candidates must corroborate their statements with licenses and supporting documents. The ministry verified each individual case which, if deemed legitimate along with the supporting documents, the case would be redirected to the Department of the Law Office, provided the Association of Legal Representatives testifies that the candidate is of good conduct.

As per to the law, the exam is a two-pronged process, or to be taken in two phases:

  • An exam in the various sciences and arts the candidate had stated he was trained in, i.e. an exam of general education and information.
  • An exam in law, where candidates were tested in law sciences, their subdivisions and what purposes they serve, as well as several other fields including judiciary rulings, the land registry system, principles of due process, court formation law, land and maritime trade laws, criminal law, code of criminal procedures, fundamental rights, monarchial rules of management, state rights, Islamic jurisprudence, the system of religious endowments, wills and probate, as well as the laws of inheritance.

The exam was conducted in Turkish language since the law stipulated that a legal practitioner must be fluent in Turkish, both speaking and reading.

Exams took place either in “Dersaadet,” another name for Istanbul, or the capital of each Ottoman province. Legal representatives who passed the exam in the provinces were allowed to practice the profession only the province where they took that test. In other words, those who took the exam in Dersaadet were able to be legal representatives in all Ottoman provinces, but candidates who took the provincial exams, like Damascus, can be legal representatives only in Damascus.

 However, since the law applied to both the capital and the provinces, and that the system of legal representation in the capital had not been abolished, the rules and conditions of the Lawyers Association were still valid and covered all Ottoman provinces including Damascus. This system was the first known, officially documented council of the legal profession and the Lawyers Association in Damascus. Consequently, lawyers in Damascus had their own association to handle their affairs and regulate the principles and mechanism of joining the association and practicing law in general.

Though covering all Ottoman provinces, it’s worth mentioning that the law was limited to officially recognized courts. The Formation of Officially Recognized Courts Law, issued on 19 Jumada Al Akhir 1296, defined courts exclusively as either criminal, civil or commercial and appointed magistrates and their related jurisdictions. This means that religious and denominational courts, already in existence, were not included in the recognized courts law; hence, also excluded from the legal representation system, remaining unregulated in terms of appointing a legal representative and the mechanism of how this representative may appear before the court. On 16/ 5/ 1912, the Ottoman government issued the Magistrates Law, which, established by virtue of Article 94, permitted procuration of a lawyer in the places where the Lawyers Association has been officially established. Lawyers were not accepted in places where an association had not yet been founded.

This was the first Ottoman law that allowed retaining a lawyer in the places where Lawyers Associations, or bars as they are called today, existed. This status quo remained during the Faisalite period despite the government’s attempts to update the laws of the Ottoman rule including the issuance of new regulations for the legal profession. However, time was too short for this government, which ruled after Syria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, to study the issue of reorganizing the legal profession. Thus, legal representatives kept practicing law according to the old system, as did their regulations, assemblies, and association (bar). Nonetheless, signs of interest in re-regulating the legal profession was clear during the Faisalite government that sought to pass a new law. These efforts were highlighted by an official notice sent by the Department of Justice to all lawyer. The text included: “Since the Department of Justice is interested in drafting a new law regulating the legal profession and prohibiting unqualified individuals from legal practice, we ask all lawyers residing in the Eastern Province to declare their names and residence addresses for us to include them in a designated register.”

The French Army occupied the Eastern Province on July 25th, 1920, and started to issue new legislations in Syria including a draft law for regulating the legal profession proposed by the French legal advisor who entered Damascus with General Gouraud. Following the circulation, the French government found it difficult to apply the new draft law. Thus, on 3/ 10/ 1920, it formed a committee chaired by the then Minister of Justice Badee Al Moayad, with Mohammed Jalal Al Din, former Minister of Justice; Suleiman Jokhadar, member of the Court of Cassation; Rasheed Al Hussami, the Public Prosecutor; Najeeb Al Amoyouni, Ministry of Justice Senior Inspector; and Fares Al Khoury, Lawyer and former Minister of Finance as members. The committee’s mission was to revise the recent law which the French government was not able to enforce.

The Committee convened and performed the following tasks:

  •  Appointed a temporary administrative body made up of the lawyers affiliated with the former association and delegated to them the task of establishing a new lawyers bar in Damascus, which was the focus of attention being the capital, the center of state activity and Syria’s most important city.
  • Closely examined lawyer registration applications.
  • Issued a bylaw for practicing the legal profession.

The administrative body consisted of ten lawyers: Fares Al Khoury, President, and Azza Al Ustath, Kastaki Shahlawi, Kamel Al Hakim, Nicola Al Shagoury, Hamed Al Jokhadar, Raoof Al Jabi, Khair Al Din Al Kodmani, Jalal Al Din Zuhdi and Elias Nammour as members. The body of lawyers drafted new regulations for the legal profession, based on a list of conditions for practicing law, the principles as well as lawyers’ duties and rights. The administrative body also decided to establish a syndicate to take over the process of applying the provisions of the list which was issued following a resolution by the French High Commissioner to Syria and Lebanon in issue no. 198 of Al Assima Magazine (the official gazette) on 30/ 5/ 1921. Based on the temporary list, the administrative body also registered the lawyers who met the conditions and invited them to elect the First Council of the new Damascus Bar. Lawyers convened on June 13th, 1921, and elected a council chaired by Fares Al Khoury, the first Chairman of the Damascus Bar Association during the French Mandate, replacing the above-mentioned committee.

The Damascus Bar Council, then called the Disciplinary Board, consisted of the Chairman and six members voted in for a period of one year. The First Council’s chairman and members were required to have completed five years as Master lawyers; however, the elected lawyers of the following assemblies were required to have been practicing lawyers for at least four years. The Council’s Chairman and three members were appointed by the director of Damascus justice department and approved by the French High Commissioner.

The three other members are elected by the majority of the registered lawyers and this election should also be approved by the director of the justice department and the High Commissioner. The Damascus Bar Association’s First Council elected Fares Al Khoury as Chairman, and Nicola Al Shagoury, Elias Nammour, Kamal Al Halabi and Salih Al Shokairi as members. The justice department appointed Hussein Husni Al Khatib, Tawfiq Al Sweidi and Jalal Zuhdi.

It’s important to notice that the law only applied to the Damascus State that included the cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama, Deraa, and Deir Ezzor. In Aleppo, which also had its own state, lawyers started to work on establishing an association in the style of the ones in Istanbul and Damascus. They set up a system by it was never implemented or materialized into practice until the Ruler of Aleppo issued a resolution in 16/ 10/ 1922 (no number) that regulated the Lawyers Bar Association of the State of Aleppo. The resolution was almost identical to the one that had already issued in Damascus with only minor differences in formalities.

The two resolutions of the Damascus and Aleppo Bar Associations remained in force until June 2nd, 1922, when Resolution No. 2117 was issued as a comprehensive regulatory law for establishing lawyer bar associations in Damascus, Aleppo, and all other Syrian states. Annulling all previous laws and regulations, Resolution No. 2117 was generally derived from the French Law. It is very well known that the legal profession in France has had a long history and firm bases and principles, making France a role model for other nations that tried to establish their bar associations and issuing regulations in the French style.

As per the new Resolution No. 2117, the High Commissioner’s approval was no longer required for registering a new lawyer. It also ended arbitrary appointments for the Bar Association’s Council members, and left all lawyer affairs to lawyers themselves and their elected Council. Resolution No. 2117 became the only law governing the legal profession in Syria, even with the existence of several Bar Associations. Adopting a pluralistic view of bar associations based on geographical location- just like in France- the new resolution considered every different area of appeal a bar association unto itself. It did not differential associations based on specialization as it was the case in Egypt where three bar associations existed: the first for lawyers who represented litigants in civil courts; the second for lawyers of religious or Sharia courts; and the third for lawyers of mixed courts.

Under the new law, practicing the legal profession in Syrian courts became exclusive to the individuals duly registered in one of Syria’s bar associations. Another law provision- before amendment- allowed French citizens, or citizens of any country under the French mandate (Syria, Lebanon, Latakia Government, and Druze Mountain Government) to join the register of any of such associations. Accordingly, the registries of Damascus Bar Association included entries to lawyers who held French and Lebanese citizenships, as well lawyers from other Syrian provinces. These lawyers kept their entries even after amending the law with Resolution No. 2775 which prevented French citizens from registering. However, the new law still gave the President of the State the exceptional power of approving the citizens of the countries that ratified the UN Charter or United States citizen to register in one of the Syrian Bar Associations following an official notice issued by the Cabinet.

Foreign lawyers already registered when the law was issued kept their entries; however, Resolution No. 2117 introduced a new type of lawyers, other than the Masters and the Trainees, called the “advocates” who are ineligible to register in the Bar Association according to Article 53 of the law but had practiced the profession for at least 10 consecutive years, or were former lawyers or judges who held judicial posts in officially recognized or religious courts for no less than 3 consecutive years.

This new category of law practitioners was subject to the provisions of the law, especially the disciplinary measures. Besides, they were not able to cast a ballot for electing the Bar Association’s Council. However, since they had already been registered in a Syrian Bar Association, and to reserve their rights as much as permissible by the higher interest of litigants, advocates were allowed to practice the profession before a Syrian court of law except for the courts of appeal and cassation.

Law violators, especially those who accept a case before one of these two courts, will receive a punitive measure and name written off from the registry. The law also stipulated forming a committee with absolute authority for categorizing and accepting lawyers, and then publishing the names of admitted lawyers in three newspapers.

 The committee consisted of President of the Court of Cassation as chairman, and the membership of the Judiciary Advisor of a Syrian state or a representative, as well as the Directors of Judicial Affairs and Criminal Affairs at the Ministry of Justice, Director of Aleppo Justice Department or one of Aleppo’s Public Prosecutors to be appointed by the Minister of Justice of the Director failed to attend. The committee also appoints two lawyers to work with its members: one from the Damascus Bar Association and the other from Aleppo Bar Association.

This committee categorized lawyers in three groups: Masters, advocates, and trainees. If the committee neglected or did not approve the names of former lawyers to be listed into any of the tables of the three categories, this means the lawyers’ connection with the Bar Association shall be immediately cancelled and they forfeit all rights associated with lawyers, become unable to assume the title of ‘lawyer’ or a former lawyer and cannot present themselves to any court under this designation. If an individual continued in practicing the legal profession or called himself a lawyer, he would be subject to the penalties stipulated by Article 223 of the Ottoman Criminal Law.

Then the French Occupation after the consequent national revolutions , uprising, popular revolutions against it , again applied the policy of division and separation , it imposed separation on Druze Mountain Region from the country's parts , a decision from its governor under number ( 635 ) dated 9th Feb. 1940 was issued to establish independent Bar Association , it center was Sweida , it decreed special rules with keeping the rules of decision Number 2117 valid in a way not to contradict with the decision of the governor mentioned above . But this decision did not last for long period , on 17/04/1943 a Legislative Decree Number ( 24 ) was issued which canceled Sweida association , its lawyers returned back to Damascus .
The Legal Law which was issued under number 2117 dated 2/06/1930 lasted to be enforceable till 13/08/1952  when  the Legislative Decree No. ( 51 ) including the organization of Law profession Practice in Syrian Arab Republic was issued, Damascus Association had the first hand in establishing this regulation in addition to the Law of Retirement issued by the Legislative Decree No. 9 57 ) , among the most important new principles included within the Legislative Decree No. (51) was the multiplicity of associations in Syria , and to keep the associations which are existent at that time ( Damascus Association, Aleppo Association , Lattakia Association ) , its stipulation to make common board for the associations which center is in the capital which tries to strengthen the bonds between the lawyers in different association , to unify Jurisprudence and dealing between them  in addition to representation of Syrian Lawyers in the International forums , admission of the registration of the citizens of Arab League countries in the association providing that applying the principle of reciprocity . Also it contained clear rules regarding the bachelors; Degree of Law which entitled its bearer affiliation to legal profession , it stipulated that such degree is the one that was granted by faculty of Law at the Syrian University while the degrees granted by Foreign faculties , there was a provision that such degrees should be equal to the Syrian Degree legally , it left the matter of diplomas equality to the rules stipulated by the law of faculty of law .
In 1972, Act No. 14 was issued which regulated the practice of Law profession , it unified bar associations in Syrian Arab republic in one professional  association which center is in Damascus , with branches in all governorates , after that , Act of legal profession regulation was issued under number ( 39 ) on 21st Aug. 1981 which canceled the previous law and which is still valid till the date .

The Damascus Bar Association had the upper hand laying the foundation of the new system, in addition to drafting the Retirement Law issued by Resolution No. 57 which mainly included the following new principles: Recognizing the diversity of bar associations in Syria; maintaining the existing associations of the time in Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia; approving the establishment of a joint council for all Syrian associations to be headquartered in Damascus with the aim of brining Syrian lawyers together ad representing them on the international arena, accepting the citizens of Arab countries into the Syrian bar associations on condition of reciprocity.

Resolution No. 57 was also very clear on the Law Degree which enabled its holders to join the bar association. The law specified that the degree must be granted by the Syrian Faculty of Law. Foreign degrees must be legally equivalent to the Syrian degree. The equivalency affairs were left to the Faculty of Law to Decide according to its rules and regulations.

In 1972, Law No. 14 was issued to regulate practicing the legal profession in the Syrian Arab Republic and unified all the bar associations into one central body headquartered in Damascus with branches in Syrian governorates. Later, Law No. 39 was issued on 21/ 8/ 1981, annulling the previous law. Law No. 39 is currently the enforceable law in Syria regarding the legal profession.

The Damascus Bar Association’s Building

The first building of the association was at Al Halbuni Avenue in Damascus , then on 13th May 1947 , a decision issued by the Prime Ministry No. ( 240 ) to allocate piece of land of the state properties upon which a building for the association to be built with space of 4000 SqM of the estate land specified on the block No. ( 2880 ) of Sharkasieh Region which was previously for the French providing that such piece of land should border the land specified for Syrian Red Crescent Society as mentioned by the decision of the Prime Ministry No. ( 99 ) dated 1st Mar. 1947 , the association established building of the piece of and the building is still there till the date .

The Damascus Bar Association Activities

The Bar Association has had an eventful history which cannot be confined to a brief overview. We will refer, however, to some major activities. The Damascus Bar was the first to call for and participate in pan-Arab lawyer conferences. The conference for Arab lawyers was held in Damascus from 12- 18 August 1944 upon invitation from its Bar Association. The conference was presided by Mr. Mazhar Al Quwatli, Chairman of Damascus Bar Association, with the participation of the lawyer bar associations of Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria.

The second conference was supposed to be held in Lebanon before it was deferred to 1946 to be hosted by Egypt. However, it was delayed again till summer of 1946 with plans of holding it in Lebanon. One more time, a few days before the conference date, Lebanon’s Bar Association sent all other Arab counterparts a telegraph asking to defer the conference for special reasons to a later unspecified date.

Since Damascus Bar Association was the among the most ardent callers to hold the conference, Chairman of the Syrian Bar Association at the time, Fouad Al Kodmani, took the responsibility of contacting the other Arab associations. On November 29th, 1946, he traveled to Palestine and Egypt and contacted their associations regarding the required efforts to make the second edition of the conference a reality, even if it meant holding it once more in Damascus. The Syrian Bar Association spared no efforts to resolve all the challenges that prevented the conference from convening following its first edition in Damascus.

These relentless efforts were eventually successful after ten years when the Second Arab Lawyers Conference was held in Cairo between 3 – 8 March 1956. In addition to the countries that participated in the first edition, the recently independent Libya, Sudan, and Tunisia participated in Cairo. The Second Arab Lawyers Conference approved the proposal submitted by the Damascus Bar Association for establishing the Arab Lawyers Union that assumed the responsibility of organizing and consolidating cooperation among the bar associations of Arab countries.

Presided by Adnan Al Quwatli, Chairman of the Damascus Bar Association, the third conference was held in Damascus from 21 – 25 September 1957. The Damascus Bar proposed a draft project of a pan-Arab constitution which was unanimously approved and submitted to governments for study. This conference also approved an invitation sent in the name of the Damascus Bar Association to hold a conference for Asian and African lawyers. This conference was held in Damascus in the same year and was attended by a large number of law experts from the two continents, including the Arab countries. The Fourth Arab Lawyers Conference was held in Baghdad from 26 – 30 November 1958. The Fifth Arab Lawyers Conference was held from 1 – 5 September 1959; the sixth in Cairo from 1 – 6 February 1961; the seventh in Baghdad on 6 December 1964; the eighth in Jerusalem from 24 – 29 October 1965; the ninth in Cairo from 27 February – 4 March 1967; and the tenth, presided by Zuhair Al Maidani, Chairman of the Damascus Bar Association, was held in Damascus from 4 – 9 September 1968.

Held in the aftermath of Al Nakba, the tenth conference was attended by thirteen Arab Bar Associations and 800 legal experts from Morocco in the West to Iraq in the East. Representatives of the Arab League and Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organization were also present. Nineteen legal studies were submitted to this conference that achieved unparalleled global success as support and participation telegrams poured in from many international legal and public organizations and institutions.

In addition to activism on the Arabic level, the Damascus Bar Association is a member of several international legal organizations including the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, the International Bar Association, and the International Lawyers Union.

The Damascus Bar Association was the first in the Arab World to issue a law magazine in 1935. The magazine is still issued periodically through the Lawyers Magazine released by the Bar Association of the Syrian Arab Republic after the unification of all associations.

In the meeting held on Tuesday 4/ 6/ 1935, Damascus Bar Association decided to issue a monthly legal and social magazine called Damascus Bar Association Magazine which would focus on publishing legal and judicial rules, regulations, judicial orders, and notices as well as news of the legal profession under the supervision of the Chairman of the Bar Association whose secretary should also be magazine’s director in charge.

On July 89th, 1935, the concerned authorities permitted the Damascus Bar Association to issue the magazine. In 1964, the joint council of Syrian bar associations decided to change the magazine’s name to Lawyers Magazine and supervised the issuance process.

Today, this magazine reaches all Syrian lawyers and everyone interested in the legal affairs of the world’s countries, universities, and legal institutions. The fountains of knowledge have its springs in Damascus, and throughout the ages, men of wisdom, science and law arrived in this city to drink from its fountains.

Since knowledge is the noblest of quests, and in appreciation of all scholarly efforts, scholars and jurists, the Damascus Bar Association was the first to establish a library within its building and filled it with a range of legal, scientific, historical, and social books.

The Damascus Bar Association initiated its efforts with an invitation it sent in 1946 to Arab kings and rulers asking them to contribute to establishing a law school in their names. This initiative was positively received by Arab presidents and monarchs (Syrian President Shukri Al Quwatli, King Farouk of Egypt and the Sudan, King Abulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, King Faisal II of Iraq, King Abdullah of Jordan, and President Bechara El Khoury of Lebanon) who provided the nascent library of the Damascus Bar Association with an invaluable collection of rare books which are kept and preserved in good condition in Damascus.

The Bar Association was always on the front line in helping the poor and assigning lawyers to defend their rights. Moreover, the Damascus Bar Association took the initiative of launching the first Lawyers Club in Damascus on 22/ 3/ 1947. The club was located on the upper floor of the original association’s building on Halbouni Ave. The Bar Association made content of the library available to the Club members who benefited from the wealth of knowledge they found in these books, as well as the different means of entertainment prepared by the club’s management.

 The Club’s by-laws considered all lawyers of the Damascus appeal courts division and registered in the annual table as natural members whose subscription fees are included in the monthly Bar fee. The Club’s membership was exclusive to judges, university professors, members of the Arabic scientific academy, secretaries general, directors and their equivalents, as well as lawyers. The fee was SYP 60 to be levied on 4 equal instalments paid in advance.

 The Damascus Bar Association was an early believer in applying the principles of social justice and strengthening the system of social security in the country. The Bar established the Cooperative Fund which provides retired lawyers and their families with the minimal level of decent living, helping them to cope with emergency situations in the cases of disability, old age, and accidents.

Courtesy of: Damascus Bar Association