British expats in Abu Dhabi to divorce through the Church

A new scheme has been announced in Abu Dhabi which will allow non-Muslim expatriates to divorce through their church. Early reports indicate that these powers will also extend to assisting the parties to reach financial settlements consequent upon that divorce, which would represent a dramatic change to the family law landscape in Abu Dhabi. It is a move which has been very well received by the expatriate family law community in the UAE.

Expats to avoid Sharia law

Unless able to successfully apply the laws of their home countries (which is an option in the UAE but is not regularly applied in practice), non-Muslim expatriates living in the UAE are subject to the UAE Federal Law 28 of 2005 relating to Personal Status. These statutory provisions are effectively consistent with Sharia law and differ significantly to the applicable law in England on a divorce.

In England, a party may be entitled to a lengthy spousal maintenance term, as well as a share of the family’s capital assets. However, under UAE laws, only a wife may receive spousal maintenance and only then for a period of 3 months. A party can only receive an equal share of assets held in joint names and will simply retain those assets held in their sole name. There is no provision to transfer property between the parties or to deal with property based abroad.
The differences between these laws can often come as an unwelcome surprise for expatriates in the UAE and they often can discover these restrictions when it is too late.

Dr Salah Al Junaibi, director of institutional communications at the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, told the National newspaper in the UAE,

“We do not want to impose a religious rule on non-Muslims. They now have options and this is now every individual’s legal right. Instead of non-Muslim couples seeking to settle their marital disputes in civil courts that are based on Sharia, they can now get a binding settlement by a non-Muslim arbitrator, such as a priest at their place of worship. In this instance, the role of mediation can be handled and authenticated by the church.”

Progressive Scheme

Expatriate Law welcomes this modern and progressive scheme and we are excited about the effect it will have on family law matters in the region. Our cases involve expatriates from the UK who have no choice but to seek recourse through the UK courts given the limitations on the financial provision available to them locally.

Providing such expatriates with a facility that  could mean their divorce and financial remedy issues can be resolved in the county of their residence is a significant step forward. Litigating a case in one country whilst both parties live in another is not ideal and can create a variety of barriers to the parties reaching an outcome. Having a locally based facility which both parties can have confidence in is very encouraging.

As a firm we are committed to methods of alternative dispute resolution and always try to find ways to resolve matters without recourse to Court. This is made difficult at present because expatriate parties can find themselves in a jurisdictional race to avoid the limitations of the local divorce regime and then without much choice but to pursue their case abroad in England.

We wait with interest to see the specific role given to the church by legislation (which has not yet been published) and to see how the church themselves seek to ensure that they follow the developing principles of financial remedy law in the outcomes they help reach. It is important to remember that in the UK for an agreement to be converted into a enforceable order, it must have the approval of the Court, and to obtain approval it must fall within the range of acceptable outcomes envisaged by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. Lawyers within our firm look forward to working with the churches and any other such organisation in Abu Dhabi to help ensure the efficacy of the agreements reached back in the UK.

Through the development of this scheme, Abu Dhabi has shown its intention to embrace the expatriate community and ensure the long term success of the region as a hub for business and growth.