Legal aid in the UAE: offering a lifeline for those who cannot afford a lawyer

The demand is such that there are still hundreds of people who cannot afford a lawyer to plead their case in the courts. The Abu Dhabi Judicial Department aims to change all that.

The courts at Dubai International Financial Centre have operated a pro-bono system for more than three years. Sarah Dea / The National
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Many lawyers provide their services for free to clients with limited funds. But the demand is such that there are still hundreds of people who cannot afford a lawyer to plead their case in the courts. The Abu Dhabi Judicial Department aims to change all that.

Every year, hundreds of people with limited funds rely on lawyers who are prepared to waive their fees to help them seek justice.

Without them, many people would not be able to take their cases to court. That means writing off losses or injustices, or at worst coming out of the process even further out of pocket.

But that is the fate of hundreds if not thousands of people, because the number needing help far outweighs the number of pro-bono hours on offer.

Most cases are civil, involving poorly paid employees who say they have been cheated out of contracted salaries or dues.

In the New Year the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, or ADJD, hopes to offer a lifeline to many of these people across the emirate by paying law firms a flat rate - either Dh15,000 or Dh20,000, depending on the type of case - to represent them.

Each applicant would be means-tested to prove they could not afford the services while payment to the advocacy company would depend on the lawyer seeing the case through to the verdict.

It is hoped this would be enough of an incentive for the firms to work to the best of their abilities, as the sooner the case is over, the sooner they get paid.

"There are too many cases for the pro-bono services to cover," says Abdel Rahman Mohamed, director of the advocacy affairs division at the ADJD.

"Every lawyer has a social responsibility to help people who do not have the means to pay for their services, but the number of applicants who need legal aid or pro-bono services is much bigger than the number of firms."

Pro-bono work is undertaken by firms voluntarily and without payment, or at a significantly reduced fee. Individual lawyers and firms in some other countries are required to do a certain number of pro-bono hours each year.

In Korea, lawyers must undertake at least 30 hours a year. In the US, the American Bar Association sets the minimum limit at 50 hours a year, "with an emphasis that these services be provided to people of limited means or non-profit organisations that serve the poor".

There are no official pro-bono rules in the UAE's public courts, meaning any firm undertaking the work does so of their own accord, for no official recognition or merit.

Some firms, however, still offer the service. The courts in the Dubai International Financial Centre are the only ones to operate a pro-bono system, which applies only to cases within its jurisdiction.

In the first three quarters of this year, there were 154 pro-bono cases at the ADJD.

"One of our strategic objectives is to provide easy access to justice," Mr Mohamed says. "This legal aid is part of that."

There are other costs associated with taking a case to trial that are not covered as part of this agreement.

Judicial fees, translation expenses and experts' fees must still be paid by those receiving legal aid.

Experts' fees vary wildly but generally cover transport and even accommodation costs, depending on where the witness is based.

But there are other sorts of legal aid and waivers that can mean avoiding payment or deferring charges.

The ADJD's legal guidelines say judicial fees, for example, do not apply in "cases filed by workers, maids and similar workers or their beneficiaries, to claim their entitlements arising out of their business relationships during all the stages of litigation and execution".

It says that when a case is rejected by the court, the court can compel the plaintiff to pay some or all of the case-related costs.

Cases are often rejected because of legal technicalities such as incomplete paperwork.

Regardless of its validity, the courts could be forced to reject a case if all the requirements are not met.

Ezz ElDin, a senior partner at Avocato law company in Abu Dhabi, says the country has one of the region's most expensive legal systems, which keeps the process out of the reach of many people.

Mr ElDin says the new scheme would be very welcome as long as there are enough firms prepared to sign up to it.

"Legal matters are very costly in this country," he says. "Some people give up and don't go to court at all. There will be so many people who require this. This country is more expensive than many others."

Mr ElDin's firm also has an office in Egypt and he says 10 per cent of its work there is pro bono, but the high costs in the UAE prevent it from doing the same here.

"The costs in Egypt are much lower, so it is acceptable to do pro-bono work."

Karen Tanedo, chairwoman of Migrante-UAE, an organisation supporting Filipino expatriates, says the demand here for pro-bono legal services is huge.

"Household helps might receive between Dh800 and Dh1,200 a month, and in cases where there's a violation most of them just prefer to go back home rather than spend the money opening a case," she says. "It can cost thousands of dirhams and they cannot afford that.

"We also have people who are in jail and cannot afford a lawyer, so they just remain in there. It is really very expensive. A lot of them just wait for the verdict inside the prison but this can take years."

Migrante-UAE engages the help of certain law firms to provide advice, but the amount of assistance is not anywhere near enough to help everyone in need.

"Anything they can do to help people look for justice we will definitely welcome," Ms Tanedo says.

A law firm wanting to join the system must be registered on the Advocate General List with the Ministry of Justice, be licensed in Abu Dhabi and employ at least three lawyers.

Firms that apply must do so for a year and agree to take a minimum of 20 cases in that time. This would give them no less than a Dh300,000 annual income.

They collect 75 per cent of their fees after receiving a "completion certificate" from the ADJD as soon as the final verdict is issued. The remainder is paid on execution of the verdict.

"No one should be denied the right to file a case because of money," Mr Mohamed says. "Commercial cases especially need experienced people and they cost money. In every case the judge will appoint an expert."

In commercial cases, the court always appoints experts and the cost of doing so falls to the plaintiff.

"There are different costs," Mr Mohamed says. "If you need to move a witness to the court, or if you want to publish an announcement in the newspaper in Arabic and English, it can be maybe Dh400 or Dh500 for four or five announcements."

Mr Mohamed says he expects "many, many people" to seek access to independent lawyers.

"If you are not from this country and you don't know anything, you will need this help and for someone to tell you what your rights are and what paperwork you will need," he says. "This is every person's right.

"I am sure the public will be very pleased. People will feel safer and have more confidence [in the justice system]. This is one of our objectives."