x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Custody law puts first things first

The UAE's family law gets its priorities right in the matter of custody law. But some improvements remain to be made.

In August 2010, the Supreme Court of the UAE ruled that the interests of a child must be paramount in decisions on custody disputes between divorced parents. The ruling was introduced by the country's highest court to ensure that in cases of bitter, protracted divorce, children are protected as fully as possible under family law.

This principle is at the core of custody cases in many countries, and it is impossible to think of a more enlightened way to deal with such matters, although of course no two cases are quite the same.

The National reported on Sunday on a case involving an international legal tug-of-war over a 16-month-old girl now living with her American father in the UAE. From the US, the child's mother filed a lawsuit in hopes of gaining custody, and a US judge has ruled in the mother's favour. The father is now hoping that the UAE courts will agree that the "best interests" of the little girl lie in remaining here with him.

It is surprising and disappointing that a US judge has mustered so little understanding of the UAE's legal framework on this point.

The law in this country also provides that a divorced mother's custody ends when a boy turns 11 and a girl turns 13, although - another example of common sense - those limits can be extended under the Islamic school of thought Al Maliki, which the UAE follows, until a boy reaches puberty or a girl is married. This flexibility, too, allows the law to serve the best interests of the child.

In one sense, however, consistency is paramount. For the sake of clarity, local courts must respect the Supreme Court's precedents, to avoid any misunderstandings and to ensure that parents know their rights.

To be sure, family law in the UAE is a work in progress and by no means perfect. For example, current legislation decrees that a woman who remarries stands to lose custody of her children, regardless of their age.

This clearly will not in every case be beneficial to the child. A better solution would be to allow the law to deal with these cases, too, one by one.

For now, it is important that family law, among the most complex in the country, continues to provide optimum flexibility to serve the interests of the defenceless party in any custody case.

That's the norm in sophisticated jurisdictions everywhere, including this one.