Alsuwaidi & Company

Introduction to the UAE’S Court System

The United Arab Emirates is a fascinatingly inspirational young nation that has accomplished remarkable success in a short span of 48 years. UAE is also one of the safest countries with the lowest rate of crimes in the world. In line with UAE’s vision to become one of the safest places in the world, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, His Highness Sheik Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has revealed the Ministry of Interior’s aim to be at the forefront of countries with the lowest rates of violent crime by the year 2021.

On the auspicious occasion of UAE’s 48th National Day, whilst wishing the country prosperity, success, and peace, Alsuwaidi & Company. would like to take its readers through UAE’s journey towards today’s effective judicial system.

The Constitution of UAE which came into effect on 2 December 1971 and which was permanently accepted in May 1996 is the guiding light for the legal system of the United Arab Emirates. Article 94 of UAE’s Constitution stipulates that “Justice is the basis of authority. Judges shall be independent and shall be subordinate to no authority but the law and their consciences in the performance of their duties.”

The UAE Judiciary administers the civil law system, inspired by the Roman and French legal systems and the Egyptian civil codes of law. Although the core principles of law in the UAE are based on Shari’a law, most of UAE’s legislations consist of a mix of Islamic and European concepts of civil law. The judicial system is usually inquisitorial wherein, unlike common law countries, precedent is generally not recognized (although judgments delivered by higher courts may be applied by lower courts).

Under the Constitution, each Emirate can either establish its own judiciary system or merge with the federal court system.

As a result, there is a combination of federal and local (or Emirate) courts in the UAE with corresponding jurisdictions, depending on the system opted by the individual Emirate.

The Emirates of Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, and Umm Al Quwain have merged themselves with the UAE Federal Judicial System, whereas the Emirates Dubai, Ras Al-Khaimah and Abu Dhabi, have retained their own distinct and separate local judicial systems.

Both Emirate and Federal Courts are allowed by the Constitution to apply UAE federal laws, as well as laws and regulations promulgated by the rulers of the respective Emirates. In case of conflict, UAE Federal Law has the supremacy.

In the context of judicial hierarchy, the UAE federal system is divided into Courts of First Instance, Courts of Appeal and Supreme Court of Cassation. The Federal Supreme Court is situated in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi and is the highest court in the federal judicial system.

The Courts of Appeals seated in each Emirate hear appeals on rulings from the Court of First Instance of their home Emirate.

In the three Emirates (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Ras Al-Khaimah) which have opted for their own state/ individual emirate court system, the judicial system in these three Emirates is divided into Courts of First Instance, Courts of Appeal and Courts of Cassation. These three Emirates’ courts of cassation are solely independent and distinct from the UAE Federal Supreme Court of Cassation. Therefore, the highest court is the Court of Cassation, below the Court of Cassation, which is the Court of Appeal and subordinate to that is the Court of First Instance.

There are three main branches/divisions within the court structure (federal as well as local court system) which are bifurcated based on subject matter jurisdiction such as civil cases, criminal cases, and personal status cases.  Depending on the tier and jurisdiction bestowed upon them by the Constitution of the land, each division of the court has a circuit to analyze the various types of cases. The Civil Court hears all claims ranging from commercial matters to maritime disputes. Administration of criminal justice is carried out through the Criminal Courts. The Shari’a court is primarily responsible for matters of personal status such as marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance.   The court circuits are subdivided into major and minor circuits which vary depending on the value of the claim, type of the case, and the number of judges in each circuit.

There are various other free zones in the UAE, which have their regulations and procedures, and still, fall under the jurisdictional supervision of the court system of the Emirate in which they are located. Exceptions to the above-explained UAE’s civil law-based legal system are the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), the two independent financial free zones with separate judicial jurisdiction. The DIFC courts have been operating since 2007 whereas the ADGM courts started operating in 2016. The DIFC and ADGM enjoy equal status as that of the federal courts/local courts to adjudicate civil and commercial matters. However, these courts lack jurisdictions over criminal matters.

The DIFC and ADGM enacted their own and operate under the English common system. In order for the DIFC courts or ADGM courts to have jurisdiction, it must be expressly adopted as the governing jurisdiction by the parties to the agreement. The DIFC/ADGM courts shall have exclusive jurisdiction by default over the disputes involving any of the DIFC/ADGM’s bodies or establishments, disputes arising from or related to a contract that has been fulfilled or a transaction that has been carried out, in whole or in part, in the DIFC/ADGM or an incident that has occurred in the DIFC/ADGM, objections filed against a decision made by the DIFC/ADGM’s bodies, which are subject to objection in accordance with the DIFC/ADGM’s laws and regulations, any application over which the Courts have jurisdiction in accordance with the laws and regulations of DIFC/ADGM. However, the DIFC and ADGM laws have granted rights to the contracting parties to choose the governing jurisdiction, when entering into contracts.

Ever since its establishment, the UAE Courts are serving the citizens and residents by ensuring justice, freedom, and peace in the society in which people’s rights are respected and protected. Moreover, UAE Courts are continuously evolving and improving to adopt international judicial best practice.