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The UAE Court System

The United Arab Emirates is essentially a civil law jurisdiction heavily influenced by French, Roman, Egyptian and Islamic law. Common law principles, such as adopting previous court judgments as legal precedents, are generally not recognized (although judgments delivered by higher courts are usually applied by lower courts). Only local firms may appear as counsel before a court.

As the UAE has established itself as a regional hub for international business, arbitration is gradually becoming a popular method of dispute resolution.

Although there is a federal court structure with a final court of appeal in Abu Dhabi (the Abu Dhabi Supreme Court), both Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah are not part of the federal judicial system. Unlike the other emirates, Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah have their own court systems, which are not subject to the federal Supreme Court. There are three main branches within the court structure: civil, criminal and Sharia, or Islamic, law. The court structure in Dubai is comprised of the following courts: the Court of First Instance, the Court of Appeal and the Court of Cassation. The Court of First Instance includes the Civil Court, the Criminal Court and the Sharia Court.

A UAE court accept an attorney appointed by a litigant according to the provisions of the law, and the attorney must prove his appointment as representative of his client by an official deed (i.e. power of attorney) notarized by a notary public.

The Civil Court (or Court of First Instance) hears all claims ranging from commercial matters (including debt recovery cases) to maritime disputes. After judgment has been delivered, the parties have the right to appeal to the Civil Court of Appeal on factual and/or legal grounds within 30 days of the date of judgment. It is possible to introduce additional evidence to the Court of Appeal and/or request that additional witnesses be called to testify. Thereafter, parties may appeal on points of law alone to the Court of Cassation (the highest court in Dubai), which is usually composed of five judges. The appeal must be filed within 30 days of the date the parties were notified of the judgment of the Court of Appeal. All decisions of the Court of Cassation are final and are not subject to appeal.

Criminal actions in the UAE commence with the filing of a complaint with the local police in the jurisdiction where the offense was committed. During the investigation, police may take the statements of any parties involved. Following this initial investigation, local police usually refer the matter to the prosecutor's office within 48 hours of the filing of the complaint. The police may refer the matter to the prosecutor for advice prior to officially forwarding the case with a recommendation to press charges.

The prosecutor’s office will then investigate the matter, take the statements of any parties involved, and hear their witnesses or any other person the prosecutor decides has information germane to the matter. The prosecutor’s office will then decide either to refer the matter to the court or to decline to press charges in the absence of sufficient evidence that a crime has been committed. The prosecutor must decide either to press charges or drop the case within 14 days of receiving the case from the police. If the prosecutor needs more time to reach a decision, he may file a request for extension with the court, which is approved or denied at the court’s discretion. Although it happens extremely rarely and only in extenuating circumstances, cases have been known to sit with the prosecutor as long as a year.

Sharia or Islamic courts work alongside the civil and criminal courts in the UAE. The Sharia court is the Islamic court in the UAE and is primarily responsible for civil matters between Muslims. Non-Muslims will not appear before a Sharia court in any matter. Sharia courts have the exclusive jurisdiction to hear family disputes, including matters involving divorce, inheritances, child custody, child abuse and guardianship of minors.

In the absence of any particular provision in the UAE codified law, the Islamic principles of Sharia as found in the Islamic Sharia textbooks are applied.

The Sharia court may, at the federal level only (which, as mentioned earlier, excludes Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah), also hear appeals of certain criminal cases including rape, robbery, driving under the influence of alcohol and related crimes, which were originally tried in lower criminal courts.

The Court of Cassation

The Court of Cassation is the highest court in the UAE, and it will only hear disputes on matters of law. The Court of Cassation will not only act as an appellate court with respect to the decisions of lower courts, but will also supervise these lower courts to ensure that they are applying and interpreting the law correctly. Lower courts must abide by the legal principles set down by the Court of Cassation.

The Emirate of Dubai has its own Court of Cassation. In all Emirates other than Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, the final appeal will be to the federal Supreme Court located in Abu Dhabi.

Drafted 22 March 2005

Based upon an article entitled “The Courts System in the UAE,” by Mohamed Ali Abou Sakr, Liberty magazine, Issue 03, March 2005.