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The United Arab Emirates (UAE) does not have a single court system responsible for adjudicating all disputes throughout the UAE. Rather, there are a number of different systems, each with its own subject-matter jurisdiction, geographic reach, and legal particularities.1 Generally speaking, federal courts hear all matters within federal jurisdiction, whereas local courts resolve local issues such as property disputes, and Shari’a courts hear civil disputes among Muslims. Given this complex legal landscape, understanding the ins and outs of these various judicial systems is integral to effectively adjudicating a dispute in the UAE.
Federal law reigns supreme in the UAE, and is based upon various statues and codes including civil and criminal procedure laws, commercial laws, company laws, intellectual property laws, immigration laws, maritime laws, industrial laws, banking laws and employment laws. These courts render decisions through judges rather than juries, and while judicial precedent is persuasive, it is not binding upon these judges; rather, they serve as guidelines for other judges to follow.2
Federal courts have jurisdiction over all cases arising within the UAE territory, including disputes involving citizens of UAE, domiciliaries in UAE, transactions taking place in UAE, etc. These courts also have a kind of “emergency jurisdiction,” in which they can determine preliminary applications for attachment of assets, urgent applications involving flight risks or asset transfers, even when these courts would otherwise lack jurisdiction. The first step in the filing of any formal complaint in a UAE federal court is to submit that complaint to the Reconciliation and Settlement Committee. The relevant reconciliation committee will attempt reconciliation, and refer complaints to the court only after resolution efforts have failed.3
Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah are the two emirates that retain their own independent legal systems. Dubai’s court system consists of the Court of First Instance, the Court of Appeal, and the Court of Cassation. Generally speaking, Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah courts will hear local disputes relating to property and domestic disputes, but will also enforce foreign judgments, arbitration awards, and awards from other tribunals such as the dispute resolution bodies within the Free Zones & Special Economic Zones.4 While each system has its own particularities, these emirates share their separation from the federal system, and from the authority of the federal supreme court.
These courts are primarily responsible for civil disputes amongst muslims. That said, Shari’a courts may, at the federal level only (excluding Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah) hear appeals of certain criminal cases including rape, robbery, drunk driving and other crimes, which originated in lower criminal courts.5
These various court systems present challenges to those seeking judicial intervention in the UAE but are unfamiliar with the intricate web of court systems available. Prospective litigants should seek experts in UAE law to ensure the proper procedures are followed in the appropriate court.
1 See Consulate General of the United States, “Dubai UAE,” available at http://dubai.usconsulate.gov/emergency_uae_court.html.
2 See Latham & Watkins, “Dubai’s Legal System,” available at http://www.lw.com/upload/pubcontent/_pdf/pub2787_1.pdf.
3 Abu Dhabi eGovernment Gateway, ” Filing a Case before UAE Courts,” available at https://www.abudhabi.ae/egovPoolPortal_WAR/appmanager/ADeGP/Citizen?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=P5800195121229243953993&lang=en&did=302720
4 See Latham & Watkins, “Dubai’s Legal System,” available at http://www.lw.com/upload/pubcontent/_pdf/pub2787_1.pdf.