Saudi Arabia grants first woman full lawyer practice rights

The first Saudi Arabian woman lawyer to be allowed to appear in the country’s courts and open her own law firm was awarded a licence by the authorities last weekend.

Criminal law and domestic violence specialist Bayan Al Zahran was given the nod by the country’s ministry of justice on Sunday. According to local media reports, she is one of four women lawyers in Saudi to be told they will be licensed to practise under their own steam and to represent clients in court. 

Until now, the practice rights of women lawyers in the kingdom have been restricted to advising as “legal consultants” and having limited client contact. 

This week’s liberalisation of practice restrictions will be welcomed by the growing cadre of western law firms that has flooded into the country over recent years. UK, US and European firms have been keen to launch joint ventures with local law players, but the issue of women’s rights in the country has been an embarrassment for western practices. 

Firms to have moved in recently include Clifford Chance, which set up a mixed practice team in Riyadh in the spring (6 March 2013). But Herbert Smith Freehills (8 April 2013) and Fasken Martineau (11 April 2013) both brought their Saudi alliances to an end this year, citing strategic differences.

Last spring the Saudi authorities registered the first female trainee to be allowed to progress to full lawyer qualification. However, Middle East legal profession observers greeted the developments with continuing caution. 

“Any woman seeking to practise law in the kingdom will have major hurdles to overcome,” said the campaigning group Human Rights Watch. “Saudi judges have wide discretion to remove a lawyer from a case before them, and nothing would prevent them from using gender to do that. Some judges continue to segregate men and women in their courtrooms.” 

Earlier this year a former Allen & Overy lawyer, Teegan Lindsay, took up a senior in-house role for Saudi company ACWA Power (20 August 2013). Lindsay is based in Dubai, rather than Saudi Arabia itself.