Progress UAE: The UAE legal system is designed to meet the demands of today and has evolved since it first started in 1971.
Abu Dhabi courts adapt to UAE's changing needs
Abu Dhabi’s court system has come a long way since the creation of the Ministry of Justice in 1971.
From only two Sharia judges – one in Abu Dhabi and one in Al Ain – during the reign of Sheikh Shakhbout, the seeds of the emirate’s modern system were sown by the late founder of the nation, Sheikh Zayed.
Judge Saleh Muneer from Sudan was brought in to oversee the creation of what has become today’s three-tiered court system.
It features the Court of First Instance, presided over by one judge; the Appeals Court, presided over by three judges; and the Court of Cassation, presided over by five.
These courts operated on a federal level, and soon after the first two of them were formed, Sheikh Zayed created an independent Sharia Court, overseen by the Abu Dhabi Executive Council.
Courts became independent of the council later when the system was refined in 2006, when Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, was assigned head of a newly created Abu Dhabi Judicial Department.
With the creation of the department, the federal courts were supported by local courts dealing specifically with cases from the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
These local courts were divided into criminal, misdemeanour, personal affairs, civil, administrative, executive, commercial, labour, appeals and cassation.
This development brought with it prosecutors who specialise in various types of law – such as the recently introduced (2009) fund prosecution, which focuses on money laundering, embezzlement and smuggling.
But the refinements did not stop there – even today, developments are constantly making life easier for the emirate’s legal officials.
Chief Justice Sayed Abdul Baseer, from Egypt, who has been the head of a criminal court since 2002, has witnessed major changes.
“Whether it is new buildings to accommodate increasing numbers, or information technology and computers, or customer-service employees at reception – these things all sound so simple yet have made a big difference.”
The 66-year-old said it was easy for people to underestimate the significance of such changes, “but those who did not have these things in the past know their value”.
He gave the example of a golf buggy that transports people from the car park to the department’s buildings and vice versa, saying it is a “very beautiful gesture” because “it saves people from the burning sun”.
He had similar praise for the car-valet system.
In terms of judging, the creation of an expert witness department was particularly significant.
“A case used to spend more than six months waiting for the expert’s report to be issued,” he said.
Staff numbers have grown to meet the demands of an increased case load, the judicial institute’s role has expanded since it moved from the Ministry to the Department, and “even the library, which used to have very few books, is massive now”.
The development of the translation department also filled a gap.
“It used to be the problem of all problems,” he said. “The judge used to chase after the translator because his presence is essential for the case.”
Even more significantly, the qualifications required of translators have also been upgraded.
The chief justice recalled instances where translations contained the opposite of what the defendant was saying, where to the defendants’ relief, multilingual lawyers noticed the errors and notified the court.
Today, court visitors are greeted by large computer touchscreens at the entrance of the department that allow them to check on the progress of their cases.
Verdicts are emailed to the president, rather than written on paper and posted. Court officials are connected worldwide. Judges are sent on international missions, and host visiting judges from abroad.
When new laws are issued, judges receive them on the same day, rather than the “ages” it once took. Instead of one forensics doctor covering all the courts, now there are eight.
And the courts today reach out to the public. The department opened a media centre on the court grounds last year which aims to build a bridge between legal officials and the media. Reporters are invited to a monthly forum where they can discuss legal topics with specialists.
A mobile-court bus is also gearing up to take justice to the masses, making attending court easier for big groups, people with special needs and those in remote regions.
This story was amended to clarify that the Abu Dhabi court system became independent of the Executive Council in 2006 when the legal system was refined by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed.