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Tunisia's Lawyers Fight Austerity Measures

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Lawyers in the general strike against the 2017 bill that would raise their taxes
Tunisia's Lawyers Fight Austerity Measures
Lawyers reject new taxes stipulated by a 2017 draft law aimed at tackling the growing deficit.
8/12/2016 | Tunis

The crisis between the Tunisian government and lawyers has been snowballing after the latter went on strike and staged a protest on 6 December in front of the government headquarters, against new taxes imposed by the new public finance law; part of larger austerity measures to rescue the failing economy.

Articles 31 and 32 of the public finance law, which aim to improve the state's resources by collecting taxes from the liberal professions (mostly lawyers, doctors and engineers), have provoked fierce criticism against the law which many described as “unfair and violates the revolution ethos seeking social justice.”

"Anti-revolution measures"

Laila Haddad, one of the lawyers protesting in front of the government headquarters and a well-known defender of 2011 revolution victims believes that “the government claim that some lawyers are not paying taxes would incite people against them.”

Minister of Finance Lamia Zribi revealed that half of the lawyers (about 4,000) do not disclose their annual income to the tax department, which claimed that lawyers’ tax contributions were “weak.”

Lawyers were outraged by this statement and described it as an attack against their profession. “Lawyers are the target of intentional provocation which reaches the limit of hatred,” Haddad said.

According to the new public finance law, lawyers would have to pay a tax (betwen USD 8 to 25) for each file they present to court. However, lawyers rejected these measures and considered them “unfair and unnecessary expenses.”

Haddad says the new taxes imposed on lawyers will make some of them unable to pay the expenses of their offices or continue their pro bono services to revolution victims. She described this move as “Anti-revolution.”

Many lawyers have claimed that the majority of lawyers belong to the middle class “whose purchasing power has started to dwindle” due to the Tunisian dinar depreciation and the rising prices, stressing that many lawyers are young and do not have offices.

Do not pay taxes!

Haddad said that lawyers had the right to defend their interests, indicating that after going on many strikes they are planning to abstain from paying taxes in case the “unfair” articles are passed.

The National Association of Lawyers has called for protests in all Tunisian courts and for not applying the new tax provisions and asked members of constitutional bodies to suspend their memberships. This escalation also included pharmacists who decided to begin an imminent strike against increasing the medicines' added value tax, which “hurts their financial situation.”

Doctors also rejected issuing invoices for all the services provided to their patients as stipulated in the 2017 public finance law, stressing that they will disclose their incomes voluntarily and that their private clinics are “not businesses.”

Fair taxes

Ridha Saidi, Prime Minister’s economic consultant says that imposing taxes on liberal professions does not aim at certain sectors. The country’s difficult situation requires “increasing the tax revenues.”

Tunisia is going through suffocating economic times due to the increasing state expenditure as a result of the increased salaries and other expenses, dwindling revenues of tourism and phosphate, decreasing exports and dinar depreciation.

Under these circumstances, Saidi says the government proposed a new public finance law to fight tax evasion and impose fair taxes on the liberal professions to make them equal with blue collar workers and civil servants who bear the brunt of the tax burden.

Some experts estimate that tax evasion reached a staggering four billion Tunisian dinars (USD 2 billion). Among the sectors often accused of tax evasion are the liberal professions which are permitted to voluntary disclosure of their incomes.

In light of dwindling tax revenues, due to the rising levels of tax evasion by companies, liberal professions and others and the rife corruption in many sectors including the public transactions, the state is forced to borrow annually from other countries, which has aggravated the financial deficit.

Saidi believes that imposing taxes is not against liberal professions including lawyers; it is part of their joint responsibility to improve the state revenues and achieve social prosperity.

Tunisia has been suffering for six years from a poor economic situation. The country has failed to achieve the much-desired economic prosperity after the revolution. The growth rate fell by 1.5% and it can address only a tiny percentage of the unemployment problem.

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Image: Mohrez El Majeri