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Traveling to Tunisia: A Lesson in Public Defense

Updated: May 14, 2020

By Corinna Goodman and Mandeep Minhas, Summer Legal Interns

Families, attorneys, and guards crowded the steps of a small courthouse in Tunis. As summer legal interns with the ILF, we’d traveled to Tunisia to get a first-hand look at the ILF’s work. One of our first stops was the Court of First Instance.

Once inside, we sat in the back of the courtroom. We heard cases on everything ranging from firearm trafficking, to domestic violence, to substance abuse, to robbery. In fact, we saw almost fifteen cases tried in two hours. It reminded us of American traffic courts, where administrative judges or clerks rapidly waive or uphold minor infractions. There, the harshest punishment might be a hefty fine. In Tunisia’s Court of First Instance, however, the judge reviewed serious charges and sentenced the accused to prison time in less than ten minutes.

There is no doubt that the Court of First Instance is overwhelmed. It is not uncommon for the court to hear up to 300 cases per day, leaving judges with little time to consider and deliberate. The cases we witnessed allowed us to see some of our work in action, like research on restrictive discovery laws and gender justice. We we also had the opportunity to observe what it is like to deliver legal aid and fiercely advocate for clients in a country where it is not yet commonplace.

It certainly wasn’t always easy for the defense lawyers. Despite the challenges, every defense lawyer represented their clients with passion and conviction. They calmed their clients down and fought through accusations based on prejudice and hearsay. It was inspiring to watch them rise to the occasion and help ensure their clients received a fair trial. It’s the everyday work of these defense lawyers that is not only helping individuals, but is helping to change the culture of Tunisia’s legal system.

Hanen Fathallah, a Senior Attorney in Tunis, has seen some of those changes firsthand. As soon as we arrived, she translated her years of experience into a crash course on criminal defense in Tunisia for us. We discussed Tunisian criminal laws at length and examined how the culture of defense in Tunisia is growing. Through their ongoing work, public defenders like Hanen are proving that fair trials benefit everyone.

As we saw on our trip to the court, having access to a defense lawyer is critical when they are the only thing standing between you and a year spent in prison. Additionally, public defenders help ease burdens on the court by mediating cases before they reach trial and reducing prison populations--and justice stakeholders in the country are beginning to recognize that.

Understanding that legal systems do not develop in a vacuum, we also took time to experience Tunisia’s rich history and diverse culture. We visited shops in the famous Medina and went to Carthage, the former capital of the Punic empire. The team in Tunisia answered our questions on the French colonization, its long dictatorship, and their experiences during the Arab Spring-- all of which have impacted Tunisia on its transition to democracy.

We are both headed back to law school in the fall, but we won’t soon forget our experience in Tunisia. It gave us a deeper understanding of public defenders’ work and the critical role they play in ensuring more equitable justice systems around the world.


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