Building the court of the future in Dubai: Amna Al Owais on leading DIFC Courts

From tech developments to international relationships, DIFC Courts has grown significantly in recent years



If anything can be said about Dubai’s business landscape, it’s that it moves fast. The incredible rate of development and growth over the past 40-odd years has captured the world’s attention, bringing countless headlines and platitudes from across the globe.

But in order to have made so many gains at such a fast pace – and in order to continue doing so today and in the future – solid foundations need to been in place. Foundations such as an adaptable and pioneering judicial system.

Proving itself to be key in this regard has been the DIFC Courts. Launched in 2006, the institution serves as an English language common law judiciary for the business community, with jurisdiction governing civil and commercial disputes not just in the DIFC, but nationally, regionally, and internationally too.
Its Court of First Instance, Court of Appeal, and Small Claims Tribunal have grown in stature, repute and capability over the past 13 years, with numerous initiatives coming along the way. Not least among them are a wills service for non-Muslims, burgeoning e-services, and ambitions to curate the Courts of the Future.

Leading the Courts since 2017 is chief registrar Amna Al Owais – one of the UAE legal world’s most prominent figures, who has served at the Courts since 2006, when she joined as a judicial assistant.

Rising through the ranks, Al Owais has lived and breathed the DIFC Courts for well over a decade, and is clear about its most fundamental role.

“We are here to create a form of choice for our business community, as well as the international investors coming into Dubai,” she explains, adding that the Courts offers “security and certainty in doing business”.

The first court in the world to be set up as part of a free zone, the Courts has proved incredibly popular thanks to the choice it offers, according to Al Owais.

“In Dubai we have two court systems, we have the Dubai Courts and the DIFC Courts and we complement each other,” she says.

“There is always a choice – whether you choose English or Arabic, common law or civil system, litigation or arbitration. There is always a suite of services that people and businesses can choose from.”

For those businesses choosing the DIFC Courts, they select an institution based on four pillars, says Al Owais.

“These are judicial excellence, service excellence, innovation, and connectivity. Each of them contribute heavily to how we stand out, and how we make sure that businesses are getting the best out of us.”

In terms of judicial excellence, the chief registrar explains the Courts invests continually in its bench, whether with Emirati judges or overseas judges “that come from renowned common law jurisdictions, such as the UK, Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia”.

For service excellence, she adds: “With a smooth journey, and the best service that you can get, you will have better outcomes. And that is why it’s important for the business community to see how we are heavily invested in providing such customer service. 

“We make sure that the journey from filing the case, the claim form, up to the issuing of the judgment, the day-to-day, the systems and everything is catering for our business community. We are 24-7 accessible. We have e-registry, which is remotely accessible and allows us to accept payments, filing of documentation, and more.”

The innovation pillar largely refers to technology, with a big focus put on the Courts’ efforts to be fully paperless by 2021 – in line with the Dubai government’s initiative. 

“We’ve also been building on the systems that we have to make sure that we are well enabled in terms of efficiency.  For example, we saw that at least 50 per cent of our day-to-day dealings with our customers and our parties are digital, so we introduced in 2018 our e-bundling service for all our hearings.

“We also announced in July our partnership with the Smart Dubai office to make the Courts the world’s first court of the blockchain, so we are working on the roadmap to create the courts of the blockchain. It’s not very easy – it’s a complex exercise – but for us as a pioneering court, it’s very important to always be a few steps ahead and capture the opportunities.”

Opportunities are something the Courts has been committed to providing its customers since launch; the opportunity to settle disputes, to receive justice, to strengthen and secure the longevity of businesses, and more.

No small part of this is its work with small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) through its Small Claims Tribunal (SCT), which Al Owais describes as the Courts’ “jewel in the crown”.

“When two parties opt in, meaning they agree in their contracts to choose the DIFC Courts, this includes the SCT. And we really have made the SCT as smooth as possible, speedy as possible, and cost-effective as possible.

“Normally in the SCT we have a settlement procedure, or first-stage consultation and mediation, which makes sure that the business relationships are saved. That is our ultimate goal – to promote settlement. Most of the SME claims will not be more than Dhs500,000, so the first stage is building that relationship through mediation and consultation. If, God forbid, there was no settlement, then they go to the hearing stage.”

The SCT has proved increasingly popular over the years, with the Courts receiving around 400 cases in 2018, up from 80-90 in previous years. Al Owais explains that more team members are being added to handle the growing demand – ensuring mediation remains front of mind.

“We’ve made sure that more staff are trained to become accredited mediators, to encourage that mindset within our members, and portray that in terms of the case handling.

“We have also made small claims very accessible with our Smart SCT, which means hearings can be handled remotely. So any party that doesn’t wish to be face-to-face, they can do it easily from their smartphone wherever they are.

“That means you can continue with your business lifecycle and the case at the same time, which removes hurdles and delays such as ‘I’m not available on that day’.

The opt in jurisdiction Al Owais mentions launched in 2011 and has steadily risen in popularity as understanding of and confidence in its mechanisms grew.

Now around 40 per cent of the Courts’ small claims come from opt in, according to Al Owais, with around 30 per cent of cases at the Court of First Instance also coming from opt in.

But as the chief registrar explains, it’s not so much about the number of cases being heard, but the value of the claims that the Courts is interested in.

“In 2018 we had really remarkable numbers – about Dhs10bn worth of claims filed in the Court of First Instance and Dhs53m in the SCT. It used to be much less in the past, so it has increased dramatically. Dhs53m is actually quite a huge number for the small claims to have in 2018.

“The value of claims coming in is a really good indication of how good we are, because that means increased confidence and interest from the community, whether the business or legal community.

“But as I mentioned, for us the ultimate goal is resolution and having settlement early on. That is how we build our systems internally – from the mindsets of the staff here, the judges, the way we’ve scheduled our fees – it all encourages settlement. The sooner you settle, the better you do in terms of the legal fees and the costs involved.

“So not only is the value of the claims a really good indication of the success of the Courts – so are the settlement rates.”

Expanding wills services

Another area the Courts has proved successful in is its wills services. The Wills Service Centre launched in 2015, offering the ability for non-Muslims to register wills outside the rules of the UAE’s Shariah-based inheritance laws.

“It caters to non-Muslims living or investing in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, whether it’s for assets, company shares, movable or immovable assets from gifts and bank accounts, and so forth,” explains Al Owais, who adds that there are plans to enhance the service in 2019 and beyond.

“We are considering and working carefully on exploring the opportunity of having our wills expanded to cover not just Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, but the whole of the UAE. So a will would cover all assets in the UAE.

“We are also considering having a worldwide will, catering for all assets. This is in the pipeline – we’re now looking at the legal framework, the procedures, and how we can have that implemented. Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll have good news on that front.”

As well as expansion in terms of the wills service’s coverage, there are also plans afoot to enhance the range of wills on offer.

“We are adding one more template will,” explains Al Owais.

“You have two ways of registering a will. Either you have a fully-fledged complex will that you might need a draftsman to help you write, or you do it independently. That’s one way. And then we have template wills. Template wills are available on the Wills Service Centre website. For that we have three templates – each one catering for a specific type of asset. So one template is for business shares (up to five separate shareholdings), one for bank accounts (up to 10 separate accounts), and one for properties (up to five properties).

“You can fill up these three templates easily online – you don’t need to go to a lawyer or anything. And then after filling the online template will, you just go and have the registration completed. 

“We’re considering adding one more, which is the full template will. Full template means you can have all your assets in one will. Let’s say you have more than five properties. At the moment, with the current template wills, you would need to then go to the full will. If you have more than 10 bank accounts, you need to go back to the full will. Or let’s say you have one property and one bank account and one company, you have to use three different templates.

“But now we’re including a full template will online. So you can have one template online that can have all assets. We’re working on building that template and roughly speaking in quarter three or four that will be available.”

Court of the future

As commendable as these current developments are, perhaps more important is the work Al Owais is doing to position the DIFC Courts as a globally-significant court of the future.

A major part of this is the 2017 partnership with the Dubai Future Foundation to launch the Courts of the Future Forum – a platform on which to build a hub for best practices among worldwide courts and tech pioneers.

And of course, technology will play an increasingly central role in how the DIFC Courts shapes up in the years ahead.

“DIFC Courts has always invested and focused on how we do better in terms of technology and using technology as an enabler,” she explains.

“There are so many things that you can do without technology, but we like to use the technology to make things easier and much more efficient. 

“We have e-forms available online, we have virtual hearings, we’re going paperless into the e-bundling systems. And the Court of Blockchain is one of our latest plans and developments, which we continue to build on. 

“We’re looking at understanding how Courts of Blockchain will cater for the courts of the future, how we can also include smart contracts, and how we can build a specific ecosystem That is on our radar and is our focus in terms of the courts of the future. 

“And of course, we continue to leverage our relationships with our local partners, whether Smart Dubai or any other partners from the private sector, including our relationships overseas, because again, all courts are looking at what the future will look like.”

Another key area for the Courts is artificial intelligence (AI), says Al Owais.

“AI is really key when you have enough data and enough precedents in cases. So we’re looking at that area, and how we can make things a lot simpler and easier as far as the judges are concerned. Because AI gives a lot of value for judges on the research side, saving them time.

“For us, our ultimate goal is making sure we’re as efficient as possible, as effective as possible, and as easy as possible in terms of use. And technology is there to enable us to reach that advantage.”

Relationships at home and abroad

The Courts’ reputation as a forward-thinking, innovative institution has not only won plaudits on home turf, but brought it renown on the globe stage.

And in the past few years, having already ensured growth, sound relationships, and a solid reputation domestically, ties have been forged with fellow courts outside the UAE.

“After capturing fruitful relationships with all local entities from a court perspective and judicial side, we started building our connections internationally,” says Al Owais.

“That trend started around 2015, when we started looking at common law courts that are known for dealing with complex commercial disputes. 

“We now have memoranda with the UK, with Singapore, Malaysia, New York in the United States, and Australia as well. There is a long list of MoUs and memoranda of guidance (MoGs) that we’ve signed with international counterparts. We have invested heavily in those relationships in the last five years, as well as activating our relationships with specific initiatives. 

“More recently we have been talking with the blockchain courts of the world, and we now have a working group with specific courts from other countries to help expand our remit in terms of how that blockchain mechanism will work. Because if you’re alone on a blockchain it’s useless, you need partnerships and collaborations with specific courts.”

Having brought the Courts’ focus back to local relationships over the past year and a half, Al Owais admits that they have been “building our relationships with free zones, with the private sector”. But adds that “by the end of the year, we will be looking at the possibility of signing new partnerships with external or international courts”. 

The identity of these courts has not been finalised yet, but Al Owais adds that “it is within our radar to have such relationships for the end of 2019 beginning of 2020”. 

One of the key reason for such relationships, whether at home or abroad, is knowledge exchange – something the chief registrar is quick to advocate.
“Knowledge exchange is very important,” she says.

“Especially for a common law court, it’s very important to have such relationships because we can benefit in terms of precedent. Landmark cases are really important on the judicial side of things.

“In addition to that, seeing the latest developments is important. Let’s give mediation as an example. Mediation has been a focus of court systems in the last year or so, and that is what we’re looking at in 2019 as well – how we can encourage further mediation mechanisms in court cases, not just in small claims. 
“So that is a huge benefit of such relationships.”

Al Owais adds that building relationships to improve enforcements has also been key in recent months.

“At the end of the day we have a judgment, and to have judgment on paper is useless,” she says. 

“You need to convert judgement to money. So enforcement is key. And through our international relationships and the reputation that we built, we are able to provide further security, protection and certainty by having a swift enforcement procedure. 

“That is the advantage of having strong relationships – to maintain the promise and the certainty we give to the business community.”

One international relationship that Al Owais believes could be particularly fruitful in the years ahead is with China, especially with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative in mind – one of the biggest infrastructure and investment projects in history.

MoUs with the Shanghai High People’s Court in 2016, and Hangzhou Arbitration Commission in 2017, and an MoG with the Hong Kong High Court, among other activities, aim to provide legal certainty, protection and contract enforcement for investors who are participating in the $5 trillion Belt and Road.

“I think we’re very lucky and fortunate to have had very good relationships with China from the outset. We had a memorandum of understanding signed with them in 2016 – the very first international court that a Chinese court signed with ever. So we’re very lucky to have that in place. 

“At the end of the day it’s all about relationships, and how we continue to strengthen those relationships, especially with China.”

Role model

As a figurehead of the DIFC Courts, Al Owais has inevitably – and rightfully – been hailed as a positive example of a strong, female, Emirati leader. 

It’s a reputation that she has carved on the back of her own ability, but honed even more precisely by one of the UAE’s most high-level leadership initiatives.

“I’ve been into two programmes at the Mohammed bin Rashid leadership programme,” she explains.

“The first was in 2014 in the young leaders batch. That was a really important experience for me – it was an eye-opener as a young leader on how you can thrive though management skills, and how you can excel.

“However, the 2018 Impactful Leaders Programme was a life-changing programme for me. I was really able to adapt and take in mind the main competencies that the programme had. There were eight of them, and the main ones for me personally were ‘agility’, ‘the disruptive mindset’, and ‘people first’. The fourth one that was really important was ‘diversity and inclusion’. These four are really close to my heart.

“Agility and disruption mean you can always be on the edge, always have new groundbreaking initiatives, and not have to stick to the usual traditional mindset of a court. We’re always innovative, we’re young, we’re making sure things are always happening, and we’re changing how the mindset of the court system should look in the future.

“People first, and diversity and inclusion are really key – especially when it comes to being a public service. It’s really important that you always think about people first. Especially this year being the Year of Tolerance, where we must make sure we’re catering to the interests of the people coming to this court, and offering them equal footing in terms of dealing with their cases and their issues.

“As well as that, we have quite a diverse team, with people from different jurisdictions, people from different countries, as well as the gender component. We actually went beyond the gender balance. Normally gender balance comes when you have lower female participation. For us, we actually have a huge female participation –  we are at least 60 per cent female.”

And as a female Emirati leader of a pioneering Dubai organisation, Al Owais has also become a role model for young women across the emirate and wider UAE.
So what would her advice be to young people looking to her for inspiration?

“Our government and the leadership, starting from the late Sheikh Zayed, was very focused on making sure that females are well equipped – from education, to work opportunities – to have the same footing, the same options, the same choices, the same opportunities as men would have. So from a personal perspective, I believe it is very important to think about what you want to be or what you want to become,” she says.

“You should always have a clear objective and clear plan of what you want to do. Because with will and determination nothing is impossible. It’s very important to have a clear understanding of where your passion lies, and what you want to contribute to the community or the country. With those in mind, and having the passion, you can achieve what you set yourself as an objective or goal.

“Having that will and determination is key. That is where it becomes easy and where it becomes achievable. Don’t think about the impossible – make sure that everything is possible