Criminal Defense - The Collegium of Advocates

    Azerbaijan’s legal system, as most legal systems in the world, distinguishes between civil and criminal law, with criminal law being much better defined and codified in Azerbaijan.  Civil law is a relatively new idea for the country and seems to have only come into force after Azerbaijan’s independence from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990’s.  The major distinction I have noticed so far between the two comes in the form of those who may practice criminal defense work.  

    The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic sets out that Criminal Defense is the sole responsibility of the Collegium of Advocates, thus giving the Collegium a de facto monopoly in this area of law.  The Collegium is analogous to the individual state bar associations in the United States in that only those who have been admitted into the Collegium may use the title of “Advocate,” and by law these are the only people who may represent individuals in criminal proceedings. The Collegium is a private organization, meaning that it is not under the control of the government and thus, is supposed to be an impartial organization.

      The Collegium accepts new members in much the same way as U.S. bar associations, with a few notable differences.  The major difference comes in the form of a requirement for professional experience.  Candidates for acceptance to the Collegium must have a minimum of 3 years professional experience.  One would assume that this requirement means experience in the form of legal work, however, as I have noticed that form of logic is non-existent here.  It is not defined in legislation which types of jobs will qualify for this professional experience; it is believed that there must be some feasible relationship to the legal profession. For example experience in a bank, municipal office or university would count, however working a t a restaurant would not. 

      Once a lawyer has fulfilled the three-year requirement they may sit for the exam.  There are two main differences between this exam and the bar exams we are accustomed to in the states.  First, the Collegium exam is not held at regular intervals, in fact, until this summer the Collegium had not held an exam for over two years.  Second, the exam is split into two parts, a written exam and an oral exam.  The candidates must score at least 60 points on the written exam to be eligible to sit for the oral exam.  An overwhelming majority of the test takers fail this first portion of the exam.  The oral exam is more of a candidate vetting process akin to that of the Character and Fitness portions of our bar applications.  Each candidate is questioned by an eight-member panel of the Collegium.  This seems to be a rather informal process with the panel members asking very random questions, some of which have no relation to the practice of law.  The entire time the candidate is answering questions some members of the panel are talking amongst themselves.  The panel then decides whether this person will be admitted to the Collegium, although it does not seem to matter how a candidate answers the questions.  On a positive note the three lawyers from the Legal Advocacy Center, which is a subset of the ABA Rule of Law Office in Baku, were admitted to the Collegium.

        The very nature of this private “self-regulated” organization, which has a monopoly on such an important public role with no oversight tends to lead a lack of efficiency and progress in the form of new ideas and processes through the exclusion of reform-minded attorneys.