Structure of the judicial system
The legal structure in the UAE runs in two systems: the Federal Judiciary presided by the Federal Supreme Court as the highest judicial authority in the UAE and the local judicial departments at the local government level.
At the federal level, Ministry of Justice oversees courts and prosecution departments across the UAE. It appoints judges and licenses lawyers, experts and legal translators.
Articles 94 to 109 of the UAE's Constitution describe the general principles of these two systems and leave the details to the discretion of local judiciaries. Each of the seven emirates maintain the right to choose either to participate in the Federal Judiciary or to maintain its own local judicial system. The emirates of Sharjah, Ajman Fujairah and Umm Al Quwain follow the federal judicial system.
However, at the local level, Abu Dhabi Judicial Department in Abu Dhabi, Dubai Courts in Dubai and RAK Courts in Ras Al Khaimah maintain their own independent judicial departments, with jurisdiction in matters that were not assigned to the Federal Judiciary in accordance with the Constitution.
Article 105 of the Constitution allows by federal law, for all or part of a local emirate court's jurisdiction to be referred to the federal courts of first instance. However, it is not possible for a local emirate court to take jurisdiction away from the federal court.
Federal laws define the circumstances in which appeals against judgements by the local judicial authorities in penal, civil, commercial and other cases may be made before the federal courts.
The Constitution explains that there are some disputes that must be heard at a federal level by the Federal Supreme Court and not at a local or emirate's level. These are detailed in Articles 99 and 102 of the Constitution.
Further, the Federal Law No. 11 of 1973 regulates judicial relations between the emirates.
The system of courts
Three levels of court
To achieve the full extent of justice, the UAE adopts three levels of courts for litigation purposes. This system enables effected party to challenge the case and present more evidence within the provisions of the law. The courts' degrees in the UAE are:
- Court of First Instance (federal and local)
- Court of Appeal (federal and local)
- Federal Supreme Court (at the federal level) and the Court of Cassation at the local level of the emirates which have independent judicial departments.
If the ruling of the Court of First Instance is not satisfactory, it can be challenged before the Court of Appeal and then the Court of Cassation according to the provisions of Federal Law No. 11 of 1992, as amended by Law No. 10 of 2014 concerning the Civil Procedural Law (PDF).
Court of First Instance
Court of First Instance is the first degree of litigation and has the jurisdiction to hear all civil, commercial, administrative, labour and personal status lawsuits. Its jurisdiction includes examining statement of claims, authentication of documents, all urgent matters related to disputes among the people and safeguarding their rights. It is also in charge of enforcing judicial execution deeds, as well as executions by deputation or reference.
Court of Appeal
Court of Appeal is the second degree of litigation which entitles the litigant affected by the Court of First Instance to appeal his/her case before a higher court in accordance with the provisions of the civil and criminal procedural laws effective in the UAE.
Only the convicted may appeal the court judgement. Thus, appeal is not possible to anyone who accepts the ruling explicitly or implicitly.
The time limit to challenge a ruling starts from the day following its issuance, unless the law provides otherwise. The time limit for appeal shall be 30 days unless otherwise provided by the law, and 10 days in urgent cases. The failure to observe the time limits of appeal in the judgements results in the extinguishment of the right of appeal.
Court of Cassation
Court of Cassation is the higher judicial body with power to try cases contested by the Court of Appeals. It supervises the interpretation of laws and its proper enforcement.
At this court, litigants may appeal only on points of law alone, such as violation of law or on erroneous application or interpretation. The appeal must be filed within 60 days of the judgement of the Court of Appeal if the value claimed in the action exceeds AED 200,000 or cannot be evaluated.
All decisions of Court of Cassation are final and binding and are not subject to appeal.
Judicial circuits are branches of court according to specialty and jurisdiction. Each level of court has a circuit to look into the various types of cases such as: personal status cases, criminal cases and civil cases. The division is based on the scope of the case and expertise of the judges. Each court is presided over by a president and supported by a judge or number of judges and administrative staff. In addition, each court has judicial circuits including personal status, civil, criminal, commercial, labour and real estate.
The litigant should know the category into which his lawsuit falls to determine the court circuit that would hear his case.
The court circuits are major and minor which differ depending on the value , the type of the case, and the number of judges.
According to Article 30 of Federal Law No. 11 of 1992, as amended by Law No. 10 of 2014 concerning the Civil Procedural Law (PDF), the minor circuits are formed by a single judge, who issues first instance judgements on civil, commercial, and labour actions, whose value does not exceed AED 500,000 and counterclaims whatever was their value.
Also it reviews actions on :
- personal status
- division of common property
- those related to the claim and specification of wages and salaries whatever was their value.
In all cases, the minor circuits' judgements shall be final if the value of the lawsuit does not exceed AED 20,000.
The major circuits are formed of three judges. They have jurisdiction over all civil, commercial and labour actions, which do not fall within the jurisdiction of the minor circuits. In addition, they handle:
- administrative and real estate actions irrespective of their value
- temporary or summary claims and all other counterclaims, as well as the claims related to the original request
- bankruptcy and preventive composition lawsuits.
Labour courts handle cases filed by private sector employees or employers against one another and are regulated by Federal Law no. 8 of 1980 concerning the Regulation of Labour Relations.
Labour disputes usually concern unpaid salaries, rejection of leave, end of service benefits, compensation for arbitrary dismissal.
Labour cases can be appealed if the claimed value of the case is more than AED 20,000.
The ruling of the Court of Appeal cannot be challenged before the Court of Cassation if the value of the case is less than AED 200,000.
The law excludes workers from paying fees for various stages of adjudication or for requesting the implementation of court ruling. However, if the worker loses the case, the court may ask him to pay the fees.
Personal status court (Sharia)
Personal status court handles all family cases related to matters such as marriage, divorce, alimony, guardianship, custody and visitation, proof of maturity, proof of lineage and inheritance.
Federal Law No. 28 of 2005 applies to personal status cases. Article 1 of the Law provides that the Law shall apply to all UAE nationals except non-Muslims in which case they shall be governed by special rules relating to their specific creed or sect.
The Family Guidance Section usually handles personal status cases free of charge before they are referred to trial at the Court of First Instance.
If both parties fail to reach an amicable agreement, the dispute will be referred to the Court of First Instance after the payment of the court fee, if applicable.
Civil courts handle the cases related to the financial rights of individuals and legal entities such as government departments, companies and institutions. The cases can be related to disputes about validity, implementation, cancellation or termination of contracts, intellectual properties, lands and mortgages.
The major circuit of the Court of First Instance is responsible for hearing cases with a claimed value of more than AED 100,000, while cases below this value are brought before the minor circuit.
Federal Law No. 5 of 1985 (text in Arabic) applies to civil cases.
Commercial courts handle commercial contracts and commitments, banking processes, commercial papers, bankruptcy and its reconciliation issues.
Federal Law No. 18 of 1993 regarding commercial transactions (text in Arabic) regulates types of cases related to above issues.
These courts handle criminal cases initiated by the federal or local prosecution in each emirate.
Mixed legal system
The UAE adopts a dual legal system of civil and Sharia laws, and recently the system has been extended to include the common law as being practised in Dubai International Financial Centre Courts (DIFC).
The principles of the UAE's laws are drawn basically from Islamic Sharia (the system of law). However, most codified legislations in the UAE are a mixture between Islamic laws and other civil laws such as the Egyptian and French civil laws.
The UAE civil law system includes all relevant laws which are largely codified and adapted to meet the evolving needs of business demands, locally and internationally. In parallel to the civil dominating jurisdiction, the UAE adopts the Sharia law system, which works alongside the civil and criminal courts, particularly within personal status courts.
Basis of Sharia laws
Islamic Sharia is one of the sources of the UAE's laws. The UAE's Constitution provides that Islam is the official religion of the Federation and the Islamic Sharia is a main source of its legislation.
Sharia is derived from several sources. Some of them are:
- The Holy Koran (Qu'ran), which is the principal source, being the word of Allah
- The 'Sunnah', which are the verbal teachings of Prophet Mohammed
- The 'Ijma', which is a consensus among religious scholars regarding solutions to matters not covered in the Koran or the Sunnah
- Analogous 'Qiyas', which is applied in the absence of a basis for a clear decision and which is drawn in conjunction with the three other sources of law.
Federal Law No. 5 of 1985 on Civil Transactions (Arabic) provides that in absence of a provision in civil law, the judge shall pass a judgement according to Islamic Sharia.
The role of Sharia laws in the UAE's courts
The UAE's Sharia courts have the exclusive jurisdiction to hear family disputes, including matters of divorce, inheritance, child custody, child abuse and guardianship of minors.
Islamic marriages are also conducted according to the Sharia provisions in Sharia courts, or through the courts' authorised marriage officers (Mazoons) in each emirate.
Ministry of Justice has launched the eMarriage service that helps couples wishing to get married to book an appointment with a marriage officer.
Both, the Judicial Department in Abu Dhabi and Dubai Courts facilitate online marriage applications and the services of marriage officers.
Usually, the judges of Sharia courts are trained in Islamic Jurisprudence and Law. In addition, the UAE's courts may rely on principles of Islamic jurisprudence in the construction and interpretation of the UAE laws.
Influence of Sharia laws on the UAE's businesses
In the UAE, the Islamic laws reflect on the business sector. For instance, the UAE has enacted legal provisions which prohibit unjustified enrichment and transactions that contain excessive risk or speculation.
Three Sharia principles form the benchmark of Islamic economics. They are:
- prohibition of interest (Riba)
- profit and loss sharing
- uncertainty and speculation (Gharar).
These three principals have created the opportunity for Islamic finance to grow in the UAE.
Other reflections of the Sharia principles on the UAE's business laws are:
- the requirements relating to capacity to contract
- the conditions for clarity of contractual terms
- the absence of constraints
- the specific conditions governing sale and purchase transactions.
In addition, the Islamic financial institutions in the UAE offer many Sharia-compliant products. These products are supported by the normal supplementary services such as the provision of cheque books, internet banking and Sharia compliant credit cards.