An Overview of the Syrian Court System
The court system in Syria is divided into a number of jurisdictions composed of the civil courts; the criminal courts; the administrative courts; the Supreme Constitutional Court; the personal status courts, which handle family law matters based on an individual’s religious background; the courts-martial maintained by the military; the Juvenile Court, which judges minor offenders; the Terrorism Court that was established in 2012 during the current unrest; the property courts; the banking courts; the customs courts; the consumer courts; the employment tribunals and so forth. The Council of Ministers has recently approved a bill to set up insurance courts that specialize in insurance-related lawsuits.
The court system is overseen by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC). The Judiciary Law establishes the SJC, which is the main organ responsible for the organization of the judiciary and therefore the court system. The SJC’s duties include appointing, dismissing and transferring judges, and ensuring that the court system is operating properly. The SJC is officially headed by the President of the Republic and the Minister of Justice who serves as his deputy and effectively manages its affairs.
As is normally the case with any court system, judges preside over trials. Whereas in common law jurisdictions judges usually start out as lawyers before rising up to their position on the bench, Syria adopts the civil law tradition of preparing judges for their careers early on in life. In this respect, the Supreme Judicial Institute has been set up under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice to train judges, prosecutors and court staff for their respective professions. Once they have obtained all their necessary qualifications, judges are appointed to their posts in line with the decisions taken by the SJC.
Although Syria is a civil and not a common law jurisdiction, the principle of stare decisis or judicial precedent does play a role to an extent. In this respect, the judgments handed down by the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, are deemed significant as they establish the case law, which should serve as precedents for lower courts to apply. If the lower courts do not follow these precedents, the Court of Cassation reserves the right to overrule them and in certain cases, hold the individual judges accountable.
The civil courts are operated in accordance with the Civil Procedure Code. If a case requires litigation, choosing the correct court depends on the disputed amount in question. If it is a small amount, the case is settled by the Magistrate of the Peace so to speak, whose verdict may be appealed before the Court of Appeal. In all other cases, the court of original jurisdiction is the Court of First Instance. If a decision is to be appealed, it is brought before the Court of Appeal and if necessary, a final appeal may be made to the Court of Cassation. In any event, the final judgment is enforced through the Execution Court, which is made up of a single judge, whose decision can technically be reviewed before the Court of Appeal.
Foreign judgments pertaining to civil or commercial cases are enforceable in Syria if the laws in the country of origin provide similar guarantees to Syrian judgments in line with the principle of reciprocity. The foreign judgments may be enforced in proceedings brought before the Court of First Instance under certain conditions.
The Criminal Procedure Code underpins the operation of the criminal justice system in Syria, which has its own courts similar in structure and hierarchy to the civil court system. The Public Prosecutor is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases on behalf of the state and is subject to the authority of the Minister of Justice.
Similar in mandate to the court that deals with small claims in the civil courts, the Magistrates’ Court also exists in its criminal counterpart. It is composed of a single judge who deals with offences, similar to misdemeanors, whose maximum punishment is imprisonment for up to one year or a fine. Only if the sentence is imprisonment or a fine of more than SYP 100, which is a figure fixed back in 1950, can the decision be appealed before the Criminal Court of Appeal. If the offence does not initially fall within the jurisdiction of the Magistrates’ Court, the Court of First Instance is the first degree criminal court where one judge presides over offences punishable by imprisonment for more than one year. Judgments can be appealed before the Court of Appeal and thereon before the Court of Cassation as well. Investigatory judges may also carry out investigations into crimes deemed to be of a significant nature. It is also worth pointing out that the jury system does not exist in Syria.
If a state entity is a party to a lawsuit, it is considered an administrative case and the Council of State has jurisdiction over it. Therefore, for contractual disputes where a public body is a party, litigious matters are dealt with in the Council of State. Its role is to pass judgments in administrative cases and to serve as an advisory body to state agencies. The Council of State also has the power to overrule secondary legislation that conflicts with the Constitution or other laws in force.
The Council of State consists of two divisions- the Judicial Division and the Advisory Division. The Judicial Division is made up of two levels- the Court of Administrative Disputes and the Supreme Administrative Court. The Court of Administrative Disputes is the court of first instance and the Supreme Administrative Court is an appellate court that delivers final judgments. Proceedings before the Court of Conflicts take place when there is a dispute as to which court has competence over the subject matter of the lawsuit- either the civil or administrative court. In addition to being a litigious body, the Council of State has the authority to participate in arbitral proceedings as well.
The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) rules on the constitutionality of legislation; oversees the presidential election, particularly since it reviews candidacy applications; hears electoral disputes arising from the presidential and parliamentary elections; and it has jurisdiction over the President of the Republic if he is accused of criminal offences. The SCC is composed of 11 members appointed by the President of the Republic. The duration of the term for the judges is set for a renewable period of four years.
Family law matters in Syria are also regulated by a distinct court system. The Civil Procedure Code, which complements the Personal Status Law, mandates the jurisdiction of the Sharia courts over personal status issues. Therefore, Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Sunni and Shia Muslims while the Druze, Christians and Jews have their own court structures. Judgments of these courts may be reviewed by appellate courts for each religion and sect, and under certain circumstances, final appeals may be made to the Court of Cassation’s Family Division.
Alternative dispute resolution procedures are also provided for under Syrian law in order to avoid the lengthy process of litigation. Although arbitration has been a feature of Syrian law for decades, the Arbitration Law seeks to adopt international practices by relying on the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration. The Law governs any arbitration conducted in Syria and any international commercial arbitration administered abroad if the parties agree to apply this Law. Technically, jurisdiction over arbitral proceedings lies with the Court of Appeal but it steers clear of any substantive decisions affecting the arbitration. Syria has also ratified the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards of 1958.