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Last Updated: Friday, 5 October 2007, 06:59 GMT 07:59 UK
Saudis to overhaul legal system
Saudis walk past Justice Square in Riyadh (July 2004)
The Saudi judiciary has long resisted the codification of laws
Saudi Arabia has announced an overhaul of its judicial system, including the allocation of $2bn (981m) for training judges and building new courts.

The reforms, by royal decree, will lead to the creation of a supreme court, an appeals court and new general courts to replace the Supreme Judicial Council.

Reformers have welcomed the measures, which they say will improve human rights and help modernise the country.

They complain that the current judicial system is often opaque and arbitrary.

Until now, Saudi judges have had wide discretion to issue rulings according to their own interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.

The judiciary has also long resisted the codification of laws or the reliance on precedent when making a ruling.

Defendants also do not have recourse to appeal and often have no right to proper legal representation.

Unchecked powers

The new reforms announced by King Abdullah are aimed at addressing some of these perceived failings and at introducing safeguards such as appeal courts that can overturn decisions by lower courts, the BBC's Heba Saleh says.

The decree sets up two supreme courts for the general courts and administrative courts, according to Hassan al-Mulla, the head of the Saudi Bar Association.

These courts will replace the Supreme Judicial Council, which will now only review administrative issues such as judges' salaries and appointments.

Mr Mulla said the decree also set up specialised court circuits within the system for commercial, labour and personal status cases.

Ministerial tribunals previously dealt with labour disputes and the system did not allow for internationally-recognised processes of appeal.

Saudi reformers say the changes will chip away at the unchecked powers of the conservative clerics, who lead the judiciary.

Although Islamic law will remain at the heart of the system, they argue that both human rights and the business environment will benefit from the overhaul.

The king will appoint the head of the Supreme Court. The reformers say he is interested in modernisation so he is likely to choose someone who will further his plans, our correspondent says.

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