Nakheel case is a win for UAE courts

Legal battles are typically long and costly in this country. The recent DIFC ruling will hopefully set a newer, more efficient standard.

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Yesterday, property developer Nakheel was ordered to pay $3 million (Dh11million) in damages to its former chief executive. Chris O'Donnell sued the company, saying it had not paid him incentives and entitlements in accordance with his contract.

The verdict is a milestone for the Dubai International Financial Centre courts, set up under a 2004 law to solve financial disputes in compliance with world standards.

Mr O'Donnell sued in June, meaning his case was settled in eight months - an uncharacteristically rapid result. Such certainty and efficiency would be welcome in all of the UAE's courts, where victims of work accidents, for example, can wait years before judges issue a verdict.

Legal battles are typically long and costly in this country. Aside from the fees paid to lawyers, a court requires 4 per cent of the total amount sought in any dispute as a fee - to a maximum of Dh20,000. And each time you appeal against a verdict, you must pay 2 per cent unless you win, in which case fees are paid by the losing party. Time, money and effort makes many people reluctant to go to court at all. Such barriers often work in favour of the party with the deeper pockets.

But even if the sum at stake is deemed worth it, many are reluctant to pursue their rights for other reasons.

There is a common perception that legal cases against government or semi-government companies are "doomed" to fail. That is why many people prefer to wait for promises to be fulfilled, or simply to give in, rather than seek redress in the courts. In one case, an expatriate who paid Dh180,000 for an investment with a subcontractor with Nakheel told The National he would not file a lawsuit because he had been told it would be "futile".

Such perceptions will not change until positive examples outweigh the horror stories. Yesterday's verdict at the DIFC moves the country in that direction and offers a model for how it can be done in other jurisdictions.

Justice is not a privilege for those who can hire strong lawyers or afford high fees.