Judicial Foundation and Legal Codification
The legal system of Syria draws primarily from Civil Law traditions, as well as Islamic and Egyptian legal traditions. The Syrian Constitution of 1973 guarantees the independence of the judiciary.
The chief codifications of law are contained in the Civil Code of 1949, the Commercial Code of 1949, the Penal Code of 1949, the Criminal Procedure Code of 1950, the Civil Procedure Code of 1953, and the Personal Status Code, contained in Legislative Decree No. 59 of 1983. The Judicial Authority Law of 1961 and the Civil Code of 1949 are the primary documents governing the organization and functioning of the secular judicial system. Administrative authority of the judiciary, including the powers to appoint, promote, and transfer judges, is vested in the Supreme Judicial Council, which is presided over by the Minister of Justice.
Judicial Structure and Court System
Syria has a dual judicial system, with separate secular and religious courts. The secular courts hear both civil and criminal matters. At the lowest level are the Courts of Peace, or Courts of Conciliation (Sulhiyya), composed of a single judge with jurisdiction to hear cases involving lesser offenses. At the second level are the Courts of First Instance (Bida’iyya), which are divided into civil and criminal courts. The Court of Assize is an additional criminal court that hears cases in which the punishment may exceed three years’ imprisonment.
Decisions rendered by the Courts of Peace, Courts of First Instance, and Court of Assize may be appealed to the Court of Appeal, or, in some instances, the Court of Cassation. (Of the 30 total Courts of Appeal, three criminal courts and four civil courts are located in Damascus, and one civil court and one criminal court is located in every district.) Decisions of the Courts of Appeal may not be appealed. However, their verdicts may be nullified by the Court of Cassation, which is located in Damascus and subdivided into specialized three-judge panels devoted to civil, criminal, canonical, and military matters.
Judicial Authority and Appointment of Judges
The Supreme Judicial Council oversees the judiciary and has the power to appoint, dismiss and transfer judges. The Minister of Justice chairs the Council.
The final court of appeal is the Court of Cassation, which is located in Damascus and subdivided into specialized three-judge panels devoted to civil, criminal, canonical, and military matters.
Constitutionality of Laws – Judicial Review
The Supreme Constitutional Court may rule on the constitutionality of laws, hear election disputes, and try the president if accused of criminal offenses. The Court is composed of five members who are appointed by the President of the Republic for renewable four-year terms. Upon request, the Court also renders advisory opinions.
The Shari’a, Doctrinal, and Spiritual Courts have specialized jurisdiction. The Shari’a courts hear cases involving personal status, family, and inheritance disputes among Syrian Muslims and non-Syrian Muslims who apply Islamic personal status laws in their own countries. The cities of Damascus and Aleppo have three Shari’a Courts; other districts have one. The Doctrinal Courts are composed of a judge of the Druze Muslim sect and are empowered to guarantee that personal status decisions of members of the Druze sect are not in conflict with the rules of the sect. The Spiritual Courts settle personal status matters for Jewish, Christian, and other non-Muslim groups. Decisions of all of the religious courts may be appealed to the Canonical and Spiritual divisions of the Court of Cassation.
There are a number of other courts with specialized jurisdictions, including the Court of Juvenile Offenders, Court of Customs, Court of Labor Conflict, and Military Courts. Administrative Courts adjudicate administrative disputes involving the state and its agencies.
Judicial Education and Profession
There is one law school in Syria, the Faculty of Law at the University of Damascus. To obtain a law degree, lawyers must study for four years and then train under an experienced lawyer for a period of time. Lawyers are organized in the Bar Association of Syria. Notaries public, who need not possess a law degree, also play an important role in that they draw up, authentic, and preserve legal documents.