Abu Dhabi is considering allowing expatriate lawyers to represent cases at a new non-Muslim family court in the capital in what would be another turning point for the legal system.
Currently, only UAE citizens are permitted to act as counsel in the courts.
Abu Dhabi Judicial Department said it was reviewing the prospect of opening up access to non-Emirati lawyers at the new court, which was opened this week as part of a series of changes to legislation affecting non-Muslims in the emirate.
The department confirmed both Emirati and foreign judges would be granted the right to serve at the court. It said opening up proceedings to expat lawyers was under consideration.
The court will hear all cases related to marriage, custody, divorce, paternity, inheritance and personal status.
Sessions will be held in Arabic and English to ensure foreigners understand them and to improve judicial transparency.
“This is a very important step, both for the court and the law itself,” said Dr Lena-Maria Moeller, from the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg and visiting scholar at New York University Abu Dhabi.
“Previous statistics have shown that the majority of non-Muslims, mostly foreigners, would be hesitant to frequent the regular family courts. And if they did, then they would often not make use of the right to have their own laws from their home country applied and the courts themselves would be very hesitant to apply foreign law.”
Non-Muslims can request that the law of their own country be used instead of Sharia, particularly when it comes to inheritance and divorce.
“So, non-Muslim couples would either go to the local courts and have their marriage and the divorce regulated by Islamic law and those who can afford to travel home frequently would travel to have their family affairs regulated in the home country,” Dr Moeller said.
“The new law is a fantastic opportunity for various non-Muslim communities to have a place here where their family affairs cannot only be regulated, but also adjudicated and governed by a law that many families probably will feel more closely connected with, than the Islamically inspired law.”
She said a dedicated court for non-Muslims would lead to speedier justice.
“It might make things easier because the procedures are so different. So, I believe that it does make sense to have a dedicated court that has its own procedure and is bound by its own procedural rules. In certain cases, the family law for non-Muslims aims at much quicker decisions.”
The move is part of new legislation introduced last month to better support expatriates in the emirate, designed to bring Abu Dhabi in line with international practice and enhance its position as a destination for global talent.
Joint and equal custody of children will automatically be granted to parents after divorce, with procedures in place to settle disputes.
Changes to inheritance laws for non-Muslims in Abu Dhabi mean that, should a person die without a will, half of their estate will automatically go to their spouse with the other half going to their children.
“The personal status law for non-Muslims, which is applied by the court, is the first of its kind in the world to apply civil principles in the regulation of family matters, as it addresses the smallest details regarding non-Muslim family issues, and provides a modern judicial umbrella for foreigners to resolve disputes in a flexible manner in accordance with international best practices,” said Youssef Saeed Al Abri, undersecretary of Abu Dhabi Judicial Department.