This is a dramatic week on the Israeli judicial front. Two massive amendments to the Judgement basic law passed their first reading in the Knesset. First, it is proposed to prohibit judicial review of the reasonableness of government decisions. Second, it is proposed to abolish the Israeli Bar Association (i.e. the Law Society). Many people are out demonstrating. But how will this impact the Israeli business scene? We briefly review these proposals.
Proposed prohibition of judicial review:
A bill which passed its first reading in the Knesset on July 11, 2023, proposes to ban the Israeli High Court of Justice (“Bagatz”) from discussing or giving injunctions concerning the reasonableness of decisions of the government, the prime minister or any other minister. This would also apply to decisions of others “chosen by the public” as determined in any law. (Proposed Basic Law: Judgment (Amendment 5)(Reasonableness Standard)).
Why? The Commentary to the bill explains that the reasonableness standard currently enables the High Court to disqualify a governmental decision that does not give sufficient weight to different interests that ought to be considered…amounting to material or extreme unreasonableness. The Commentary says elected representatives of the public should consider this, not a Court. The Commentary also says the proposal would not stop the Court considering and issuing injunctions on other grounds, such as proportionality (presumably against a disproportionate decision).
Abolition of Israeli Bar Association:
Another bill which passed its first reading in the Knesset on July 5, 2023, proposes to wind up the Israel Bar Association and replace it with a quite different Israeli Lawyers Council (Draft Law Israeli Lawyers’ Council, 2022).
Currently the Israeli Bar Association is an autonomous body whose leaders are democratically elected by lawyers in Israel. It admits new lawyers, administers disciplinary matters and promotes other professional matters. This is all legal, pursuant to the Bar Association Law, 1961.
According to the latest Bill, the Israeli Lawyers Council would be an appointed body with the following members: a Chairman (District Court judge) appointed by the Justice Minister; 4 private lawyers appointed by the Knesset Constitution and Law Committee; a District Court judge appointed by the Supreme Court President; 3 public sector lawyers appointed by the Justice Minister; 2 representatives of the Finance Minister; 1 academic appointed by the Knesset Constitution and Law Committee.
The Lawyers’ Council would largely take over the Bar Association’s functions according to detailed provisions in the proposed bill. Note that the Justice Minister would issue ethical rules for lawyers. This would be after consulting the Lawyers’ Council and the Knesset Constitution and Law Committee.
What would the Lawyers’ Council NOT do?
According to the latest Bill (Section 67), the Lawyers’ Council would not take over the Bar Association’s function of appointing two representatives to the Judges’ Appointment Committee….
Currently, Israeli judges are appointed by the President based on the selection of the Judges’ Appointment Committee which has 9 members: the Supreme Court president; 2 other Supreme Court judges appointed by the Supreme Court; the Justice Minister; another Minister; 2 Knesset Members; and 2 members of the Bar Association. According to the proposed Bill, the last 2 would drop out leaving 7 members on the Judges’ Appointment Committee.
Why? The Commentary to this Bill says the interests of all citizens should be promoted, not just the welfare of the legal profession.
These are controversial proposals which the government may or may not refine before they are finally enacted. Regrettably, no written constitution is yet proposed to lay down separation of powers or checks and balances, not even a second Knesset chamber. A simple majority of the Knesset would be sufficient. All this is different from the situation in many other Western democratic countries.
Impact on business?
Start-ups in Israel often now set up US parent companies which own intellectual property (IP) and Israeli limited scope subsidiary companies. This benefits the US treasury and puts the Israeli hitech economy and tax revenues on borrowed time.
Whenever an exit deal occurs, the US IRS would collect capital gains tax.
On the legal side, Israeli attorney Gidon Cohen, based in Ramat Gan, commented to us that judges must be seen to be impartial, professional and free from political influence. Otherwise, commercial disputes won’t be heard in Israel and Israel won’t be the forum for litigation. A left-wing liberal businessman will not want a biased right-wing judge, and vice versa. Impartiality is absolutely vital. Loss of faith in the Israeli legal system to enforce rights would reinforce the need to register IP abroad among other things.
Also, businesses don’t like surprises – the proposed Israeli judicial reform was scarcely mentioned in the last Israeli general election, it was mainly about personalities. The Shekel is fluctuating and international credit rating agencies have expressed reservations.
The next Israeli election is 3 years away. Market forces are here now.
It remains to be seen how things develop. One possibility is that compromise talks might perhaps resume at the residence of President Herzog, a lawyer, before the Knesset passes the proposals…..
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