From 1970 until 1990, the UAE's legal environment was still young and under constant development, involving mainly Arabic-speaking lawyers from neighbouring countries and few nationals licensed by the Rulers Courts. A couple of reputable international law firms licensed as legal consultancy firms existed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
As the economy boomed, many Emiratis were drawn to the opportunities offered in the practice of law, joining a pool of lawyers licensed to appear before the federal and emirates' courts. Since then there has been a major regulatory shift, starting in 1991 with Law 23, which governs the profession.
In early 2000, the complexities of different legal systems, competing markets and international business practices led to the establishment of a completely independent judicial system set up by the Dubai International Financial Centre Authority.
While the increase in the number of legal services providers and the diversity of legal fields have enabled UAE legal expertise to flourish, the practice of law itself has not undergone significant change. There has been little progress in how lawyers serve their clients or how talent is developed. Legal practitioners and the regulatory and licensing authorities have forged few links of communication with each other.
The disconnect between the legal practitioners and the legislature has been quite vivid. The result is obviously detrimental for both, since the lack of communication has kept practitioners in the dark on legislative and regulatory developments; in turn, the legislature is unaware of the opinion and feedback of practitioners. The challenge for all legal practitioners in the UAE, Emiratis and expatriates, is that they are not organised under any umbrella group which would bring them together to discuss, debate and network.
Legal reforms and the future of the legal profession are being seen in a new light. In November, Dubai will host the International Bar Association (IBA) 2011 Annual Conference and a recent meeting introduced the upcoming event. In my three years of practice as a lawyer, and throughout the many years I have been part of the legal practice, I have not seen so many regulatory authorities and lawyers sit down together.
About 4,000 lawyers from around the world are expected to attend the week-long conference. Although there has been no formal agreement announced between the IBA and regulatory authorities, it is expected that the legal profession in the UAE will benefit.
The first signs of the change to come were clear as the profession's two regulators shared their plans with the lawyers attending the introductory meeting. The Dubai Legal Affairs Department announced plans to introduce a training programme for lawyers as a precondition to renewing their licenses; the Ministry of Justice announced further amendments to the 1991 law governing the legal profession, obliging lawyers to take professional indemnity insurance and introducing a code of ethics. More legislation is also in the pipeline.
The strongest message conveyed was that the existing legislation concerning the legal profession was not sufficient. But is it true that the lack of legislation is the real problem? Or is it the lack of communication between practitioners themselves on one hand and with the authorities on the other?
Two UAE lawyers' associations are the Jurists Association in Sharjah and the Dubai Chamber of Commerce's legal business group. While the Jurists Association has not always brought practitioners together, the Chamber group has been dissolved, although new members are trying to reformulate it.
And communication between lawyers and regulators is undefined. Some lawyers are consulted by authorities on potential new laws, but most are not aware of these developments until the laws are passed.
Just recently, the case of an Emirati lawyer who has been accused of embezzling his client's money has cast a bad light on the reputation of the profession and practitioners. Efforts to protect the integrity of the profession have to be coordinated between lawyers and the regulators. Already ethical rules are being discussed to regulate the profession.
This is where I believe the IBA can play a vital role. The association is capable of supporting professionals through training and introducing rules of professional conduct. Lawyers need to network with colleagues who share their interests and concerns. To stay abreast of the latest developments in the law, they have to engage with legislative authorities.
The only way to do that is by being part of a lawyers' group or council where professionals have an opportunity to play a role in developing and enacting public policy that furthers the interests of justice, promotes the legal profession and strengthens the rule of law. The IBA can lay the foundation of such a coordination and assist the lawyers in forming it.
As guardians of the law, lawyers play a vital role in the preservation of societies. The fulfilment of this role requires an understanding by lawyers and regulators of their relationship with and function in the legal system. In fulfilling professional responsibilities, a lawyer necessarily performs many difficult tasks. Not every situation can be foreseen, but fundamental ethical principles should always be present for guidance and disciplinary rules should be implemented when necessary.
No code of principles can cover all situations that may arise and, accordingly, no disciplinary provisions can cover all situations. The loss of respect and confidence is the ultimate sanction. So long as lawyers are guided by their passion for justice, the law will continue to be a noble profession. This is its greatness and its strength, which permits no compromise.
Diana Hamade is an Emirati lawyer and legal consultant. She is the founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai