ABU DHABI // Judges are more often choosing fines over prison terms to punish minor crimes after new laws gave them more room to be flexible.
Senior judicial figures said there was a strong argument for keeping some offenders out of jail, and that handing them fines was still a deterrent to others.
One criminal lawyer suggested the cost of keeping inmates in prison had been a factor, while a judge in the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals said he and his colleagues were wary of jailing minor offenders.
Chief Justice Mustafa Abu El Naja, head of the Abu Dhabi Appeals Court, said the recent changes to legislation gave judges more flexibility.
“Some crimes don’t impose a danger on society so opting for a fine instead of jail is better,” Chief Justice El Naja said.
But this creates a problem with the many defendants who cannot afford a fine. If jailed, every day they spend behind bars pays off Dh100 of their debt.
“So the dilemma is whether the judge should issue a lesser fine, which might not be enough of a deterrent, or a big fine, which will become a burden,” Chief Justice El Naja said.
The shift follows sweeping changes to criminal laws last October amid further signs of liberalisation in the justice system.
The minimum four-year jail sentence for first-time drug offenders was reduced to two, but the Attorney General can send an offender for rehabilitation without the case going to court.
First-time offenders can also be fined a maximum of Dh10,000 or given community service.
In recent months, the courts have shown leniency in many cases. In one, an engineer went on trial in Dubai accused of forgery for altering a parking ticket.
He received a suspended term, despite the fact that the crime carries a maximum of 10 years.
“He changed it from 5pm to 6pm,” said Judge Ahmad Saif, head of the Dubai Civil Court. “It’s impossible that I could give this man the maximum sentence in such a minor offence.
“In some cases judges certainly prefer a fine but if imprisonment is mandatory by law, they can also turn to alternatives like giving a suspended jail term.”
Bouncing a cheque remains a criminal offence, but Kawthar Ibrahim, an Emirati lawyer who has dealt with such cases, has seen leniency there too.
“Now I have noticed that judges are issuing fines instead,” said Ms Ibrahim.
Hurling insults, defamation and slander are also now being dealt with with fines, lawyers said, although in some cases they might be substantial.
Yousef Al Bahar, a well-known criminal lawyer and head of Al Bahar and Associates Advocates, said one result is less burden on the justice system.
“The country spends between Dh70 and Dh100 on each prisoner a day, and this is costly considering the number of prisoners,” Mr Al Bahar said.
“Therefore legislators gave judges some space and authority to determine an alternative to jail in many crimes in the penal code.”
In some cases, immediately deporting someone found guilty is the best option, for them and the state, he said.
One example was deportation for prostitution, Mr Al Bahar said.
“Instead of sending a woman to jail after being arrested for working in prostitution she is now deported immediately,” he said.
Mr Al Bahar said sending a first-time offender to jail could result in them becoming a career criminal, although the impact of their crime on the community had to be weighed up.