From a tribe's sheikh to judge: How UAE’s judicial system has evolved

Progress UAE: In the early days before the formation of the UAE in 1971, disputes were brought before the tribe's sheikh, who acted as a judge.

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ABU DHABI // Faraj bin Hamouda can remember the days when people would settle their disputes not in court, but by seeking their father’s wise judgment.

His own father, Ali, was a sheikh in Al Jimi, Al Ain, and solving the tribe’s disagreements was his responsibility.

“Each tribe’s sheikh was known as their customary judge and solved people’s problems,” said Mr bin Hamouda, 62, a former FNC member.

“They also had a jury who would listen to the case, and then whatever decision the tribe judge made all sides had to agree with it.

“They did not just go and listen to waste time. If they sought his judgment they had to follow his ruling.”

Cases varied from disputes over ownership of animals, land and money to theft, murder, and tribal war. Lawyers, in the modern sense, were not officially recognised in the justice system until after the formation of the UAE in 1971, yet people would nominate representatives to speak on their behalf during these majlises.

“Matters were solved in a friendly way that was satisfactory to both sides and maintained everyone’s rights,” Mr bin Hamouda said.

He gave the example of a man who owed money to another but was unable to pay. Both would visit the sheikh to seek a solution.

“The sheikh or judge might say ‘X is not able to pay Y. Y, how about you pardon him half the amount, and take the other half back?’”

On some occasions the jury and others present would help the debtor to pay.

The system was successful because the sheikh had intimate knowledge of his people’s problems.

“There used to be a judge for cases related to the sea, one for agriculture, one for camels,” Mr bin Hamouda said.

Before Federation, when Sheikh Shakhbout ruled Abu Dhabi, a single Sharia court operated with one judge, but because most people were still tribally oriented and lived far from the central court, the local sheikh’s decision was usually final.

“Even if it was a fight using canes or knives, they solved it among themselves,” said Mr bin Hamouda.

Back then there was no jail. Imprisonment was a simple affair, with offenders being kept in a room or similar.

“Even if a man was imprisoned, a wise, prestigious man from his tribe would go to the Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbout, and plead for his release, he would say ‘whatever he owes we will take responsibility for it’.

“If anyone had a dispute, specialised people ruled for him fast, not like now where cases get stuck in court for 30 years.”

Even the police would first try to reconcile feuding parties before forwarding disputes to court.

Mr bin Hamouda’s brother, Hamouda, who later became the Minister of Interior, was working as a policeman when a man complained to him that there was someone fishing illegally on his property and then selling the fish at market.

“My brother knew that the man he was complaining about was very truthful and never lied. So he went with the accuser and saw the man with the fish.

“He asked him if he had fished in that man’s water, and added: ‘You either tell me the truth that you fished in this man’s water or I will take you to prison’.”

The man confessed and Hamouda suggested a solution: that the men divide the revenues in half. Both sides agreed.