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November 18, 2010 / passiveprogressive

Legal Research in Morocco: One Big Traffic Jam

There’s a saying in jurist tradition that, “Better ten guilty men go free than one innocent be imprisoned.” This maxim, known as the “Blackstone Ratio” after it was coined by the English Justice William Blackstone, has become a central pillar of many European based legal systems.
In many ways, the Blackstone Ratio functions as Hippocrates’ command for doctors to “do no harm” except for legal professionals. But in Morocco, a more fitting maxim would seem to be that it’s better to detain as many as possible while sorting out who should walk free. Over the past month, I’ve been doing a considerable amount of reading on Morocco’s legal system, and I wanted to share some findings and possible suggestions.
A culture of orality:

I’d like to start first with a general observation: society in Morocco is not literary despite the fact that most citizens speak at least two languages. Moroccans are oral communicators; people don’t read maps, they ask for directions. More on point, a friend of mine who coordinates a staff of professors brought up the fact that none of them go online or read through their contract to see what rights they have as employees. Instead, they go to their boss and ask questions. There’s a certain beautiful efficiency to this system of oral information, but just like playing a game of “telephone” the message often gets mixed up.
In legal situations where precise communication is key, this culture of orality can cause a real problems.
Court coordination (or lack thereof):

Fortunately, case-law in Morocco is not necessarily binding, unless it comes from the Supreme Court. This means that many first-instances courts will have very little coordination with the previous decisions of higher courts. Often, a case will have to go all the way up to the supreme court, simply because there was not a district court decision on record that would be grounds for dismissing the case. As a result, the Supreme Court decides over forty-thousand cases a year.
A further problem is that though Supreme Court decisions are de facto binding for lower courts, dissemination and clear summary of the decisions is lacking, making it difficult for lower courts to keep up with changing case-law.
Morocco's legal system
Unfortunately, this miscommunication often has the effect of creating immense amounts of court clogging. It has been reported that in some cases accused criminals have been forced to wait for up to three years before their case can be heard.
Morocco has an incarcerated population of about 50,000 – a strikingly low number for a country with a population of 30 million. In part this is due to the fact that Morocco does not have a robust budget for a prison system, but also due to the fact that the crime rate is fairly low.
The problem, however, is that almost half of Moroccan inmates are juveniles. In general, they are housed in “youth pavilions” within prisons, but for all intents and purposes they are incarcerated right alongside older, more hardened criminals.
It should be pointed out that the preponderance of juvenile detainees is due to the fact that as a whole, Morocco is a young nation: half of its citizens are under the age of twenty five. Many juvenile offenders are orphans forced into petty crime by poverty and are simply held by authorities because there is no other system in place to prevent them from turning back to crime.
With the intense delays forcing children to wait for longer and longer periods, the chances increase that juvenile offenders will become hardened criminals. Morocco’s prisons have a 63% recidivism rate, both because the inmate community strengthens criminal ties, and because the professional community refuses to hire felons. Simply put, youth who are detained because of petty robbery will probably never have a chance at a real job once they are set free.
What to do:
In most of the research I’ve done, the most important issue is getting children out of prisons so that if they must wait, they are not in abusive situations.
Additional steps must include legislation specifying maximum detention time for youths, better records systems, and training on juvenile procedures for judges.
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