Abu Dhabi’s legal reforms in line with new socio-economic reality

The new law removes linguistic barriers in court litigation by abolishing the burden of translating English documents into Arabic. It also allows the parties to proceed with entire court proceedings in English.

By Hesham ElRafei

Published: Sun 13 Feb 2022, 9:41 PM

Last week, Abu Dhabi published an unprecedented civil marriage and divorce law, which grants expats living in the emirate the freedom to enjoy civil family principles under secular legal framework for the first time in the region instead of Shariah rules.

The state-of-the-art law introduced progressive and liberal civil rights for the first time in the region by adopting the following secular concepts.

Civil marriage: Civil marriages, which include interfaith relationships, can now be registered without Shariah restrictions related to the family’s consent and male witnesses. This allows tourists and residents from all over the world to marry without issue. Next week, the Israeli Knesset will discuss the legalisation of civil marriage as well.

No-fault divorce: For the first time in the Middle East, women can file for divorce quickly and peacefully without worrying about their financial rights. In April, the UK will follow in Abu Dhabi’s footsteps, as London will approve a no-fault divorce.

50/50 custody: Both parents will be granted the right to joint custody of their kids after the divorce, but the child’s best interest comes first.

Non-Muslim judge: In other jurisdictions, non-Muslim judges are prohibited from serving in the judiciary as per Shariah rules. But for the first time in the Arab world, non-Muslim judges will now be allowed to hear cases.

Gender equality: Men and women will be treated equally before the law in all cases, whether it concerns inheritance, testimony before the court or the right to marry and divorce.

Unmarried parenting: A baby born out of wedlock will be legally recognised.

Right of audience: Foreign lawyers are now allowed to appear before the court, which is a significant step in the liberalisation of the legal industry.

Family arbitration: The introduction of family arbitration as an alternative dispute resolution to settle alimony and post-divorce financial disputes contrasts the traditional view that family disputes cannot be arbitrated.

The new law also removed linguistic barriers in court litigation by abolishing the burden of translating English documents into Arabic. It also allowed the parties to proceed with entire court proceedings in English. This reform is significant, as it will reduce court translation fees, save litigants’ efforts and time, and ease access to swift justice.

The new rules are in line with the Abu Dhabi bilingual court world-class project, which recognised English as the second official language (Arabic being the first) for court procedures in 2018.

The reform made it mandatory for the claimant in a lawsuit to serve court documents in English to a non-Arabic speaker. As a result, expats before the courts of Abu Dhabi enjoy a unique privilege that is not available in any other court in the region.

Every single stage of litigation is now available in English, with a set of user-friendly interactive bilingual court forms, which increase the transparency of the entire court procedure and protect the foreign litigation rights to due process and ease of access to justice.

Abu Dhabi is also the only court in the region to have a bilingual court panel, where Emirati judges sit beside Western judges. The court judgements are issued in both English and Arabic.

The bilingual court project in Abu Dhabi managed to produce over 100 bilingual user-friendly court forms, available in both English and Arabic, covering all stages of litigation procedures: reconciliation, case management, claim forms before the first instance court, appeal and cassation, court expert reports, court notifications and judgements. Abu Dhabi’s legal reforms safeguard the rights of the 200 nationalities living, working and investing in Abu Dhabi; most of them can not read Arabic.

The emirate protects expats’ rights to access to justice and to be treated fairly and equally without linguistic barriers under a modern and transparent legal framework by using universal values and languages in court proceedings.

This protection and equality before the court reflect how the Emirate of Abu Dhabi looks at fairness and due process in its continuous efforts to provide a transparent, world-class and modern judiciary.

Abu Dhabi’s legal reforms go hand in hand with the emirate’s ambitious economic and social plans, where judicial innovation plays a vital role in the modernisation of the dispute resolution system and emphasies the ease of doing business in the Capital.

An efficient and transparent online court ecosystem and a business-friendly strategy are crucial for supporting and enhancing the emirate’s modernity, attracting foreign investment and encouraging the best talents to live and work in Abu Dhabi.

Hesham ElRafei is a legal expert based in the UAE

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