Lawyers' Exodus from the Belarusian Bar Continues

Published on July 21, 2022
The Belarusian Bar is going, perhaps, through its darkest times since its inception. Since 2020, at least 5 attorneys have been prosecuted (or are still in the middle of the process), 60 attorneys have been deprived of the right to pursue their professional activities. In addition to the direct withdrawal of the right to a profession, one can observe a significant outflow of people from the profession caused by other reasons, in particular, the deterioration of the conditions in the professional domain.
What was before?
The previous time the list* of attorneys and its modifications were analyzed by our project at the end of April 2022, that is, three months ago. At that date, there were 1,818 attorneys in the bar. From October 2021 to April 2022, the decrease amounted to 216 attorneys. Such a huge contemporaneous exodus of attorneys from the Bar is explained primarily by the consequences of the adoption of 2021 amendments to the legislation on the Bar, which, according to the opinions communicated by representatives of the Bar management have done a lot of good (for instance, the chairman of the Minsk City Bar Association V. Oreshko optimistically called it "improvement" – you read more about the interview and the changes in the article), but in fact, they have dramatically worsened the situation.

*It’s worth noting that, apparently, there are deficiencies in these lists not exceeding 1-2 persons.
Amendments of the legislation on the Bar in brief:
We remind you that at the end of November 2021, extremely odious amendments to the legislation on the bar came into force, further increasing its dependence and controllability by state bodies (for more information, see the materials “Access to the Profession: Commentary on Changes to the Legislation on the Bar”, “Certification and Recertification of Lawyers: New (or Old) Features in the Legislation on Advocacy”, “Expansion of the Powers of the Ministry of Justice: Changes in the Legislation on the Bar”, “Appointment of Self-governing Professional Associations by the Ministry of Justice: Commentary on Changes of the Legislation on the Bar”). The key legislative amendments can be boiled down to the following:
  • One can become an attorney only upon the consent of the Ministry of Justice, issued according to a non-transparent and arbitrary procedure;
  • Extremely broad powers of the Ministry of Justice to interfere in the activities of the bar;
  • the Ministry of Justice appoints absolutely all heads and members of professional associations;
  • Elimination of such forms of activities for attorneys as working within a law firm, as well as individual practice;
  • Expansion of mechanisms for regular and extraordinary recertification of attorneys, which is used as a mechanism for reprisals against unwanted professionals;
  • The mandate of subjecting attorneys to disciplinary responsibility is practically concentrated solely in the hands of professional bodies, whose members are appointed by the Ministry of Justice;
  • Elimination of key powers of the bodies of attorneys’ representation (conference or lawyers’ congress) in favor of professional bodies appointed by the Ministry of Justice;
  • Approval of the Rules of Professional Ethics for Attorneys by the Ministry of Justice alone.
These changes were received extremely negatively by the legal community, many were going to leave the profession, since not everyone was ready to carry out professional activities within the legal advise offices, and not everyone was ready for such restrictions of the profession; it was difficult to see the possibility of providing high-quality legal assistance in a situation of dependence and state control.
One of the examples of the degradation is the elimination of individual attorney activity and practice within the law firm, which has caused a rather significant departure from the profession of the part of it that had previously worked individually or in the firm. Of the 216 “lost” attorneys, 90 have carried out their activities within the law firm, and other 36 have worked individually, respectively, 42% and 17% of the total number of those who lef (by the way, the the share of these groups in the total amount of lawyers represents 17% and 13% respectively). That is, the share of the mentioned groups of lawyers in the amount of lawyers who have ceased their activities, obviously exceeded their share in the total number of lawyers.
Thus, there is evidence of a serious impact of the legislative changes on those groups of lawyers who, according to the assurances of the functionaries of the Ministry of Justice and the Belarusian National Bar Association (BNBA), could in no way be affected by the “reform”.
“Minus 41, plus 3” – the 3-month balance
What about now? Has the trend of attorneys leaving the bar turned? Let's take a look. The baseline figure for July 18, 2022 is 1,780 lawyers. It should be noted that 3 persons have been admitted to the bar since April, respectively, 41 lawyers have left it since April 2022. That is, the “boost” is totally negative.
Now it is necessary to examine at the expense of which categories of lawyers the change in the numbers has occurred, and whether the ban on the “convenient” types of activity has influenced the exodus.
As to law firms, it should be noted that out of 41 lawyers who have left in the last three months, only 5 previously carried out activities within firms. 3 of them have lost their right to a profession as a result of coercive measures (meaning, obviously, not due to their free will, but, as a rule, in connection with “inconvenient” [for the government] professional activity). That is, the departure of only two “law firm” attorneys can theoretically be attributed to the liquidation of a respective form of professional activity, which poses a significant difference between this “outcome” and the “outcome” mentioned in the previous period, when the percentage of exodus of “law firm” lawyers was ten times higher.
Individual lawyers are “represented” by eight persons, of whom three were deprived of the right to profession due to the retorsions, respectively, the departure of 5 lawyers can be associated with the liquidation of the respective forms of activity, which corresponds to the share of this group of lawyers in the bar in general.
Thus, to some extent, it can be concluded that the elimination of such forms of advocacy as individual activity and practicing within a law firm have ceased to be the primary reason for the “exodus” of lawyers.

That is, it is no longer appropriate for lawyers to use such previously frequently mentioned reasons for leaving the bar as getting rid of some unjustified privileges that law firms and individual attorneys used to have. It was a convenient pseudo-reason (something like nailing the “greedy cats”, but in the legal field) justifying the departure of lawyers at the first stage of the adoption of the law, but now this factor, apparently, no longer matters.
Of course, it should be noted that both entry and departure of lawyers can also take place due to natural reasons, like retirement. We do not have access to primary information, so we are forced to make some assumptions and speculations. Note that 9 lawyers gone have had licenses since 1993, that is, they could possibly leave due to reaching a pensionable age. This figure correlates to some extent with the empirical data on the average percentage of retirees per year.
That is, with respect to three dozen lawyers who have left the bar since April 2022, we can say with a certain degree of confidence that their decision was influenced by a general change in the conditions for practicing law. It should be noted that we are not talking about targeted actions to squeeze specific professionals out of the profession, we allege that the global change in the number of lawyers is a consequence of a global modification of working terms. That is, the “reform”, apparently, has negative consequences.
What may happen next?
Speaking about the future, it is impossible not to notice the number of new attorneys admitted in three months amounts to 3 persons. We admit that now, for reasons unknown, information has not been published as to all the newly admitted attorneys, however, the number of newly admitted for the period from the beginning of November 2021 to the end of March 2022 (5 months) has amounted to 18 attorneys, which is also completely insufficient to restore the number of professionals that was in the bar before the 2021 “reform” and the beginning of crackdown in 2020.
Based on unofficial information, the leadership of the Ministry of Justice aims to get the number of lawyers back to the amount before the 2013 reform, that is, about 1,400 professionals. We can neither refute nor confirm the data, but in reality this situation is taking place.
If we compare the population's supply by legal professionals in Belarus and in other countries with a relatively similar way of life, our country –– even when the amount of lawyers was at its peak –– was far behind other countries. So, in Belarus, the provision of lawyers at the moment is about one lawyer per 5,000 people. In Georgia, for example, this figure is 1 lawyer per 800 people, in Moldova –– 1 lawyer per 1,500 people, in Ukraine –– 1 lawyer per 1,000 people, in the Russian Federation –– 1 lawyer per 2,000 people. Accordingly, the situation with the availability of legal aid will deteriorate significantly.
In addition, it should be mentioned that during 2021, many human rights organizations were liquidated, which “delayed” the provision of legal assistance to various vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities, refugees, foreigners, people with experience of homelessness and other persons who extremely rarely communicated with “traditional advocacy”, and as a rule, lack relevant knowledge and experience. Based on this, the availability of legal aid will deteriorate even more significantly. And, apparently, the will of the governing bodies is aimed at implementing this trend.
Based on internal discussions in the legal circle, the consequences of such a policy are already resulting in the situation when it is more and more difficult to find an attorney, especially for the representation of interests in politically motivated cases. Our project will proceed with monitoring the developments of this situation.

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