Interview with Dr. Menberetsehai, former Vice President of the Ethiopian Federal Supreme Court and juridical counselor of the Federal Government of Ethiopia.
1) What is the basis of the Ethiopian legal system?
Ethiopia follows the civil law tradition. Its procedural system is adversarial. Some call it a hybrid system because it has picked some aspects from the common tradition as well.
2) With which judicial system in other countries can the Ethiopian legal system be compared?
The substantive law and the procedure are in many ways similar with the civil law systems in Europe. The Civil Code was drafted by a French jurist and known comparative lawyer Prof. Rene David. The Commercial Code was similarly drafted by another jurist from Europe. The procedural rules are a hybrid of both common and continental transitions. So they have picked some values from the British system and some others from the civil law system. The procedural design is adversarial. The fundamental sequences are similar with the German system, although the later has recently changed some of the basic procedural devices.
3) Do all citizens in Ethiopia have easy access to the legal system?
Not all citizens have easy access to justice. There are so many barriers, such as cost, distance, complexity of procedure, absence of legal aid, unfriendly environment for the vulnerable groups specially women and children
4) In which areas do you see the main problems with jurisdiction?
Although there are some improvements as a result of the recent reform programs, there remain some problems in efficiency, modernity, transparency,effectiveness, court facilities, skills in court room management, absence of technological innovations, inexperience of judges,
5) The government wants a judiciary with greater transparency and effectiveness. What must be done to achieve this?
Introduce more technological innovations, training, create a dignified environment by providing standard facilities including buildings, institutionalize reform, introduce more innovative procedural devices that ensure more transparency, comply to the rules which ensure transparency, empower citizens and civil society to air their voices. I believe technology plays a key role. Losing of files, proper record of witness statements, availability of judgements on line, opportunity to file cases on line, availability of integrated data about court performance are some of the tools for transparency which can easily be achieved in Ethiopia.
6) You are working on a developPP project with ReNoStar, a software developer for lawyers and notaries in Großwallstadt. The project is supported by the Federal Ministry for Cooperation and Development and sequa. What do you expect from ReNoStar?
The expectations are high. The end result I expect to see is ‘happier users of justice’ because, in my opinion, they are the litmus paper for improvements. The intermediate results that would take us to this end would be development of software customized to the Ethiopian needs, including Web portal, paperless court processes, speech recognition etc. For me, these are game changers. Not only will these address many of the bottlenecks that cause delay, dissatisfaction and frustration by users but it will also change the image of justice in general. Of course it will also make life a lot easier for judges and their support staff. They will begin to work less but become more productive. I also expect a well designed training package. The best solutions may be of little help if they are not implemented, further developed to address new needs and be sustained.
7) What should be the first step?
We have to have a plan to be used as a roadmap both for ReNoStar and the Ethiopian Partners. The first thing is to know the needs which Ethiopia wants to address which I believe we have done already. The next step would be to develop solutions with the involvement of experts from ReNoStar and MIT in Mekele. Ownership of the project by the Tigrai Supreme Court, training of those who would be involved about the importance and the innovations should also be priorities.
8) How is the cooperation between ReNoStar and Ethiopian authorities – universities, courts, lawyers – planned?
A project of this magnitude requires cooperation of the highest type. ReNoStar has the expertise and experience. Ethiopia has the need and the willingness to address them. The Supreme Court of Tigrai has to provide all the necessary information and facilitate implementation and change management. The Mekele University-MIT is going to be the hub where the solution from ReNoStar will be customized and further developed to upscale them and expand them to other courts. Of course we also need to train. them. The authorities are expected to support the project in a number of ways, mainly by providing political support. Other authorities such as he prosecution service and police will also be part of the implementation team as they are also beneficiaries of the project. Lawyers are the main actors in the judicial process. They have to understand the importance of the system and to the extent possible support the development and its implementation. We should also expect some resistance at the beginning.
9) How do you intend to do justice to the different national languages? Is Amharic and English enough?
Ethiopia is multinational. We have many languages in Courts. Once tested and proven in Mekele, it will be necessary to use the system in other parts of the country, such as in Amhara (Amharic), Oromo (oromipha), the Southern (many local languages and Amharic) and many other regions. My expectation is that once the government sees that this project is key in addressing the main problems of the justice system, it would want them to be expanded to other states, and very quickly. Expanding best practices is one of the feature of the Ethiopian government.
10) How important are lawyers in Ethiopia?
As much as they represent litigants, they are very important and that is why they are considered as court officers in many legal systems. That said, it should also be noted that their number is low although growing, many of them are concentrated in the urban centers. On the other hand many litigants cannot afford to have lawyers. Representation by a lawyer is not mandatory in Ethiopia. They have legal obligation to provide free services for 50 hours a year. There is a legal aid scheme, but the budget is limited.
11) How can their importance be increased?
The government is designing some reform packages to address the problems faced in terms of professional competence, ethical issues, training and use of modern systems in their process. The ReNoStar system can be of some help in this regard.
12) Where do you see the Ethiopian legal system in ten years?
Ethiopia has an ambitious plan to become a middle income country in 2015. That requires a more vibrant legal system. The economic development will create new demands on the legal system as much as the later also facilitates the former. In ten years I would like to see a court environment that technology savvy, a more friendly, efficient, transparent, accountable and as a result of these effective in providing remedies when requested. In a fast process of globalization, the Ethiopian legal system cannot and should not remain an ivory tower.
13) What would you wish the EU to do to promote development in Ethiopia in general?
- Understand the needs
- Understand its priorities.
- Share experiences (technical and human)
- provide financial assistance
- Share its aspirations to defeat poverty and have trust that it will be able to do so.
- Give as much assistance as possible in providing training and education so that it would stand on its own feet.
- facilitate transfer of knowledge.