Legal reforms in Jordan focus on the judicial branch, corruption and regional governments

Since October 2016 Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein has spearheaded a series of reforms aimed at building a more effective and efficient judicial system. Reforms are expected to promote civil rights, boost the efficiency of the courts and strengthen the rule of law, which King Abdullah II described as an “essential requirement for a successful democratic transformation.” Additionally, in a bid to expand managerial capacity to all levels of the administration, the Decentralisation Law will see a substantial shift in planning and decision-making powers from the central government to local officials in newly formed governorate administrations.

Judicial Reform

Led by former Prime Minister Zeid Rifai, the Royal Committee for Developing the Judiciary and Enhancing the Rule of Law was established in October 2016 to help improve the judicial environment in the kingdom. In February 2017 the committee published a report that suggested 49 recommendations, proposed changes to 13 laws and involved the implementation of four new draft laws, which began in August 2017. Alongside certain changes to Jordan’s criminal law, much of the motions focused on the need to improve the judicial infrastructure and enhance the efficiency of court procedures. Of the 16 pieces of legislation proposed by the Cabinet, 13 bills were approved by Parliament.

Changes to the criminal justice system look to ensure a suspect’s right to legal council, establish a fund to provide legal council in the case of those who cannot afford a lawyer, and reduce instances of pre-trial detention by setting limits and providing for alternatives such as electronic monitoring.

Regarding enhancing efficiency in court proceedings, reform focused on achieving financial independence for the Judicial Council, guaranteeing swift rulings in lawsuits by granting courts the power to hold multiple hearings in short intervals, adopting modern technology to help speed up final rulings, and cancelling several procedures that prolong litigation without affecting the litigant’s right to a fair trial. Additional goals will guarantee timely rulings by setting up an independent department within the Ministry of Justice dedicated to civil lawsuits brought against public departments.

Other proposals are aimed at enhancing business opportunities for investors in the kingdom, and bringing greater transparency to Jordan’s legal processes. This is being done by tackling debtors who attempt to evade court rulings and giving judges the power to seize mobile and immobile assets. A special court dedicated to looking into specific cases of economic significance is also being established to enhance the business and investment environment. Regarding transparency, an amendment to the Jordan Bar Association Law will oblige lawyers to identify their contract wages with clients.

The spate of reforms is also expected to boost economic activity in the kingdom as rising investor confidence in the rule of law improves the overall business environment. “The first criteria that investors consider before entering a country are transparency and stability of the law,” Jérôme Hénique, CEO of mobile network operators Orange Jordan, told OBG. “These reforms underscore Jordan’s commitment to creating a transparent environment, and we hope it will constitute a positive step towards more stability in regulations in the medium term.”

Corruption Challenge

Corruption and the so-called wasta (connections) culture continues to be a problem in Jordan – an issue King Abdullah II has singled out as needing addressing.

According to the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, Jordan scored 64% in the control of corruption category in 2016. While this is higher than the MENA average of 44%, it is still a way off from the high-income OECD average of 85%. To compare, regional neighbours Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia scored a respective 14%, 32% and 63%. The government recognises there is much work left to be done, and launched the National Strategy for Integrity and Anti-Corruption 2017-25 in a bid to improve its standing on global indicators and reduce the effects of wasta culture.

However, the success of rooting out corruption through top-down reforms alone may prove difficult, requiring a certain level of cooperation from the population. Despite the difficulties faced by authorities, it is clear that significant political will has gathered behind these reforms. In a September 2017 interview King Abdullah II told local media that, “Jordan aspires to present an inspiring regional model for ongoing reform, despite economic challenges and turmoil in neighbouring countries.”

Decentralisation Law

In addition to reforms to the judiciary, there has been a significant development regarding efforts to promote a more bottom-up approach to local service delivery and economic development. Passed in 2015, the legal structure for such an undertaking includes the Decentralisation Law, which lays the foundations for new elections and the powers of new provincial governments, and the Municipalities Law, which involves municipalities. Before the passing of both laws, municipal councils and mayors were chosen by the Cabinet; however, August 2017 saw the first local officials elected by regional constituents to serve on 12 newly created governorate councils.

Promoting such elections is part of the central government’s wider aim to disseminate much of the decision-making to the municipalities, give local administrations greater power in the distribution of resources across the governorates, and free up officials in the House of Representatives to focus on their legislative duties. The plan will reduce the number of employees working in ministries and central government agencies, as the size of local governorates is increased, giving Jordanians more say in local governance by allowing elected officials play a larger role in deciding how capital funds are spent on development in the region.

The central government will still play a role in appointing 15% of the seats on governorate councils, and candidates will be chosen based on their expertise in economics, investment and law. While local strategic plans will now be designed by governorate councils, the Parliament will review these projects when submitted and put them to a vote. According to Prime Minster Hani Al Mulki, the scheme is designed to expand grassroots participation in identifying economic, social and public service projects while also contributing to nationwide development.

Budget

Since the elections, the government has begun allocating finances for individual governorates in its 2018 budget. To ease the transition process, the implementation of the decentralisation scheme will be gradual with each governorate starting with a capped budget. Each year, according to the Decentralisation Law, the amount of funds allotted in the budget will be increased and larger sums of money will be apportioned to the regional governorates, along with more executive powers.

It is hoped that as local governorates expand the scope of financial decision-making to all levels of administration, significant investment opportunities will be created as they are better suited to identifying local funding needs. As a result of this, the regions are expected to benefit from greater economic development and substantially more revenues generated locally. “The local council members will be able to influence the prioritisation of local needs, which could lead to a more responsive governance. However, the real challenge will be to turn this vision into a reality and for the higher tiers of government to take these priorities into account in the budget allocations,” Lars Burema, programme manager with The Hague Academy for Local Governance, told media in August 2017.

Looking Forward

Legal developments geared towards decentralising power are a positive step in strengthening popular participation in local planning with regard to the development process, but also herald a more open government that fosters greater transparency and accountability.

Such reforms to political and administrative systems, especially with regard to national planning and development, offer notable opportunities for constituents and financiers alike as a more collaborative approach to economic investment will increase trust in future projects.

Although the process has not been without its challenges, reforms have been widely well received. Jordan’s commitment to democratic ideals has been praised by international governments and by global NGO Human Rights Watch, which commended the government for taking an important step towards reforming the country’s justice system, and urged the immediate implementation of the proposals.

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