Amna Al Owais is just one of two people from around the world to receive an honourable mention for a Young Lawyer of the Year Award from the International Bar Association. The deputy registrar and small claims tribunal registrar for the Courts at Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) discusses the challenges of rolling out a free legal advisory scheme, and how to boost the number of female Emiratis in the legal profession.
How did you end up at the DIFC Courts when you started working in law about six years ago?
The court was up and running when I was doing my master's in the UK. I got a call from a judge here, and he said "we opened a common law court and we are targeting Emiratis who have a common law background". That was a very appealing role for me. I started as a junior person, in an admin role, then was the first UAE national on the registry side.
What do your responsibilities consist of today?
The deputy registrar makes sure the administration side is up and running and has some judicial function for progressing cases. I'm also small claims tribunal registrar and programme leader for a pro-bono scheme, which helps people in need of legal aid.
Why have these areas been important to you?
The small claims tribunal (SCT) and pro-bono are two of the most significant and inspiring projects I've worked on. The SCT was led by me and a judge, and the pro-bono [scheme] as well.
SCT gives more access to justice and takes us to more of an international level by fast-tracking and simplifying rules. It helps people get consultations and settlements, instead of going through litigation.
[The pro-bono scheme is relatively] a new system. People can access justice more easily because there is financial support from lawyers giving legal advice.
Why do lawyers provide financial support?
One challenge is the pro-bono scheme is run by us, as a court. [Similar] systems are run separately in other parts of the world, such as funded by the government and not through the court. We've had lawyers fund it in a way because they would be responsible for the whole process. The most challenging aspect was setting it up and operating it within the courts - and not an independent body.
What other challenges have you encountered with the pro-bono service?
Getting volunteer law firms on the roster. We've had to convince people. We have a committee combined of representatives from international and local law firms, and had their support - but only about five. Other than these, we've had to proactively go through lawyers, send emails about the volunteer list and encourage people to participate in such a scheme that is new to the region. Now, we have about 20 volunteer law firms, which is not a huge number but for us is significant.
What do you feel is needed to get more Emirati women involved in the legal profession?
More flexibility for lawyers, especially women, because a woman would have a family. The expectation for women is different than for a man. It's more about the mindset of the community, and giving women more access as a man would have. The profession itself, as a lawyer, is open for both genders.
You say your role is government-based rather than within the private sector. Did you make that decision for work-life balance reasons?
At the beginning when I started my career at DIFC, it wasn't about balancing, having less pressure or choosing a government role over the private sector. It was more about the challenge of going to this new common law, English-speaking court system. Now that I am committed and have a family of my own it is not easier; it is still challenging. For me, it is the right choice at the moment.
* Neil Parmar