Since the 1990 coup, the structure and functioning of the judicial system was seriously disrupted. Because of the breakdown of law and order, the judiciary was unable to handle criminal cases. Interference by the government and by the military contributed to the breakdown. Many magistrates went out on strike in 1993 to protest difficult working conditions and nonpayment of salaries.
Traditionally, the legal system was based on French civil law and Chadian customary law. The judicial system consisted of four criminal courts, four magistrates' courts, four labor tribunals, 14 district courts (in major cities), 36 justices of the peace (in larger townships), and a court of appeal (the Appellate Court of N'Djamena). A Supreme Court was inaugurated in 1963 and abolished in 1975. A Court of State Security was established in 1976. Courts-martial, instituted early in the Déby regime to try security personnel, no longer operate and the remaining military magistrates sit as civilian judges on the N'Djamena Court of Appeals. In most rural areas where there is no access to these formal judicial institutions, sultans and chiefs preside over customary courts. Their decisions may be appealed to ordinary courts.
Under the transitional charter, the Appellate Court of N'Djamena was charged with responsibility for constitutional review as well as review of decisions of lower courts and criminal convictions involving potential sentences of over 20 years.
The new constitution, adopted in March 1996 by referendum mandates an independent judiciary. Though steps have been taken to follow these provisions, it is clear that there continues to be significant interference in the independence of the judiciary, including from the executive arm of the government. In 2000, the chief justice of the Supreme Court demoted two Supreme Court justices, reportedly because they made a decision which adversely affected the interests of the chief justice. The president names the chief justice and 15 councilors are chosen by the president and the National Assembly. Appointments to the bench are for life. A Constitutional Council has the power to review legislation, treaties, and international agreements prior to their adoption; nine judges are elected to the Constitutional Council for nine-year terms. A Superior Council of Magistrates is to act as a guarantor of judicial independence, and in 2001, sanctioned several justices for malfeasance.