The UAE government has embarked on one of the biggest overhauls of the legal system in years, with changes to family law and other areas affecting people’s daily lives announced on Saturday.
The laws, effective immediately, reflect progressive measures to improve living standards and for the UAE to continue to be a destination for foreign direct investment and people from around the world.
Amendments to existing laws and the introduction of new laws seek to regulate crucial personal and civil laws, with provisions allowing non-Emiratis to have their personal affairs dealt with according to the law of their home country.
The UAE is home to more than 200 nationalities and is accommodating to their needs. Reforms will affect laws that relate to divorce and separation, how wills and assets are divided, alcohol, suicide and the protection of women.
The changes also mean that the laws of a person's country of origin can be used for divorces and inheritance, meaning that Islamic law, or Sharia, would be rarely used when it comes to family law cases involving expatriates. A number of these measures have been discussed in the UAE for some time and reflect a major milestone in the country’s continued judicial progress.
Divorce and inheritance:
One of the most significant developments relates to divorce, separation and the division of assets if a marriage breaks down. If a couple were married in their home country, but get a divorce in the UAE, the laws of the country where the marriage took place will apply. The new law mentions joint assets and joint accounts, and that the court could be called on to mediate if there was no agreement between the two parties.
The changes also cover wills and inheritance. Until now, family members of a deceased person, particularly in acrimonious cases, could have found assets were divided under Sharia, which expats may be unused to.
Now, a person's citizenship will dictate how their assets are divided among their next of kin, unless they have written a will. The one exception is for property purchased in the UAE, which will be managed according to UAE law.
In Dubai, non-Muslims have been able to register wills with Dubai International Financial Centre’s wills and probate registry, which is linked to the government, but not in Dubai's state-run civil courts, for some years now. In Abu Dhabi, non-Muslims have been able to register a will at the emirate’s Judicial Department since 2017.
Suicide and 'Good Samaritans':
Suicide and attempted suicide will be decriminalised. Until now, someone who tried to take their life but survived could have been prosecuted, though such instances were rare, if not unheard of. Police and courts would ensure vulnerable people receive mental-health support. However, anyone found assisting an individual with an attempted suicide will face an unspecified jail sentence.
The law will ensure "Good Samaritans" who intervene in situations where people are in need cannot be held liable for the outcome of those they help. Under a long-standing, but rarely used clause, it was possible for someone who went to the aid of someone, to give CPR or other first aid, to be held accountable for their injury or death.
The new law states that “any person who’s committing an act out of good intention, that may end up hurting that person, will not be punished”.
“If you want to give help or assistance in an emergency and that person gets harmed [as a result] you will not be punished.”
Harassment and assault:
There are a number of amendments seeking to protect the rights of women. There will no longer be a distinction of crimes known as "honour crimes", where a male relative can get a lighter sentence for assaulting a female relative under the guise of "protecting honour". Rather, such incidents will be treated as crimes, similar to any other assault.
There will be tougher punishments for men who subject women to harassment of any kind, which is thought to cover street harassment or stalking. The law appears to be a reiteration of legislation brought in last year that brought tougher offences for harassment, and also recognised that men could be victims of harassment or stalking.
The punishment for the rape of a minor or someone with limited mental capacity will be execution.
Alcohol consumption is no longer a criminal offence. Anyone who drinks or is in possession of alcohol or sells alcoholic beverages in authorised areas without an alcohol licence will not face penalties.
Previously, such prosecutions would be rare but an individual could be charged for consuming alcohol without a licence if they were arrested for another offence. This will no longer happen under the new law.
A person still must be at least 21 years old to drink legally in the UAE and anyone caught selling alcohol to someone deemed under age will be punished.
Alcohol can only be consumed privately or in licensed public places.
Abu Dhabi ended its alcohol licence system for residents in September. Previously, a licence was needed to buy or consume alcohol. This federal law will now apply to all emirates.
Cohabitation for unmarried couples:
For the first time the law will allow for the legal cohabitation of unmarried couples. Until now, it is has been illegal for an unmarried couple, or even unrelated flatmates, to share a home in the Emirates.
In recent years, the authorities have rarely targeted or prosecuted anyone found in breach of this. But it will ensure people feel they are on the right side of the law when they move to the country.
The new law mandates that translators are provided for defendants and witnesses in court, if they do not speak Arabic. The court must ensure legal translators are available. Furthermore, new privacy laws mean that evidence related to cases of indecent acts will have to be protected and cannot be publicly disclosed.