x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Pace of progress in Abu Dhabi leaves the courts behind

Abu Dhabi's public administration is in most respects modern and efficient. But there's a little building near the courthouse …

Anyone who has lived in the UAE long enough can appreciate the advancement of Abu Dhabi's government services.

Gone are the days of having to rush to submit your government applications before the afternoon siesta at 1 pm. In a relatively short period of time we have clawed our way out of the 1980s into an era where technology, after-hours services, impressive professional space and trained employees have all contributed to the evolution of the Abu Dhabi Government.

Yet, as with any positive change, there exist a few remnants of the old days that continue to survive, progressing slowly and crawling behind the rest.

I had the recent pleasure of visiting the Abu Dhabi immigration office. Not only was I conveniently able to visit at 7 pm, but to my delight the visa processing took no longer than 20 minutes. Many people might think this is plenty of time for processing, but they probably were not around years ago when the same visa meant taking a day or two off work to get it completed.

What I thought was another example of successful renewal and development is the Abu Dhabi Courts. And on the surface, it is.

Not so long ago, when you stepped through the court's doors, the very first look would make you feel guilty, even if you were only visiting to get a marriage certificate. But today, the building is designed with warm colours, wood and marble. Many facilities have been made available in the entrance foyer, including customer-service desks, legal consulting services, a coffee shop and comfortable leather seats for people to use while waiting for their cases to be heard.

On closer inspection, however, I found my wonderment to be a bit premature.

On a recent visit, I strolled into the main building looking forward to ordering a coffee and a croissant. In search of the fender-bender traffic case involving a family member, I was directed outside the building to a small, one-floor structure, no more than three offices wide.

Entering this building through the side door took me through a time portal: I was transported back to the UAE in the 1980s, only with 30 years worth of ageing. As I stepped onto a cheap, worn-out carpet and walked past peeling walls, my eyes were drawn up to bathroom-style ceiling panels, with aluminium foil in the corners to keep the tiles from dropping on peoples' heads.

The building was made up of a long, narrow corridor, packed with scruffy lawyers and members of the public. Along the sides were small offices where judges and advocates sat in old, worn-out offices.

To my utter surprise, a queue of people lined up in front of the kitchen area, waiting for the tea boys who, it turned out, were the only ones permitted to move case files from one office to another. I had no luck in getting my case heard until all coffee and tea orders had been delivered on the tea boys' morning run.

After my case was settled, I went to the hard-to-find typing office in the back, where all court orders are uploaded to the federal digital library. A week later, by utter chance, I came to find out that the office had accidentally typed a travel ban order on one of the participants in the case. If the person had decided to travel during that week, before the mistake has been uncovered, the result would have been great embarrassment at the airport, being stopped at immigration and turned back.

Throughout the rest of my day at the court, one that will be engraved in my memory, I pondered how this relic of a building could even be called a court. A court, after all, is an institution which must not only practice but boldly communicate wisdom, history, objectivity and efficiency, through design, facilities and customer service.

Judges who have lived a life of dignity and respect should not be made to work in such unworthy environments. Justice must stand tall, clearly showing, through court facilities and staff, the importance this institution holds.

During my unfortunate visit, I could only too easily imagine justice sitting cross-legged on the floor, on a coffee break.

Though the UAE has achieved great results in the advancement of most official services, one of the most important elements of society has not kept up with this rapid pace of change.

Courts must meet the highest standards of government services, and must be hospitable. People arriving in the courts are already carrying heavy loads, having perhaps been cheated or suffered a loss, or desperately searching out justice.

So the appearance of the building where that justice is meted out matters greatly. The system is expected to be impartial and objective. The bricks and mortar backbone where these noble aims are pursued must be up to the task.


Taryam Al Subaihi is an Emirati political and social commentator who specialises in corporate communications