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DIFC Courts to oversee disputes in all free zones?

By Mevan Bandara and Sulakshana Senanayake

A survey published by the Dubai Statistics Center has called for input from the public in what appears to be research relating to the application of ‘Common Law’ in all free zones in Dubai. The survey is not about the use of ‘Common Law’ in a general sense. Instead, the Dubai government is focused on integrating DIFC laws and giving jurisdiction to the DIFC Courts for overseeing civil and commercial disputes within the free zones.




The DIFC is governed by its own body of laws with an independent judicial authority, the DIFC Courts. The DIFC Courts currently have jurisdiction to hear disputes in connection with an entity established in the DIFC, disputes which are connected to the DIFC or disputes in which the parties have agreed to the jurisdiction of the DIFC Courts.


The rules of procedure in the DIFC Courts largely follow the Civil Procedure Rules followed by the English courts. The DIFC Courts apply DIFC laws in disputes before it, unless there is an agreement to the contrary. DIFC laws are largely a codification of English common law. The DIFC Courts can also apply any other law agreed among the parties to the dispute, such as UAE law.


Under the current legal framework in Dubai, unless a free zone company agrees to resolve its dispute through arbitration or through the DIFC Courts, all disputes will have to be referred to the on-shore Dubai Courts. The on-shore Dubai Courts operate under a civil law system and apply UAE laws by default. Proceedings before the Dubai Courts are conducted exclusively in Arabic, whereas in the DIFC Courts they are conducted in English.


The Survey


The survey published by the Dubai Statistics Center appears to suggest that the Dubai government is considering two possible means by which the jurisdiction of the DIFC Courts and the laws of the DIFC may be extended to all free zones in Dubai: a hybrid system and a standalone system.


a) Hybrid System: DIFC Courts having jurisdiction with UAE laws as default


Under this framework, the DIFC Courts would be responsible for overseeing civil and commercial disputes within the free zone. UAE laws will be applicable by default to the dispute. However, for matters concerning litigation procedures and evidentiary rules, the DIFC laws will take precedence. This means that while disputes will be adjudicated by the DIFC Courts, the foundational laws of the UAE would influence and guide the decisions in court cases.


b) Standalone System: Extended jurisdiction of DIFC to selected free zones


In this setup, the entire legal framework of DIFC’s civil and commercial laws (excluding licensing regulations) would extend to the selected free zone. This would mean that companies in these zones will function entirely under DIFC laws and regulations (e.g. company law, bankruptcy law, employment law, etc.), with the DIFC Courts handling all respective disputes.




As noted above, if the Hybrid System is implemented, the DIFC Courts will have jurisdiction over any entity in any free zone in Dubai without the need for agreement among the disputing parties to submit to the jurisdiction of the DIFC Courts. However, the DIFC Courts will only apply UAE law (and not DIFC law) unless there is an agreement among the parties to apply a specific different law. In other words, the lex fori (the law of the Court) would be common law.


Under the Standalone System, the DIFC Courts will, in addition to having jurisdiction over disputes concerning other free zone entities, also apply DIFC Laws by default. In effect, this system will determine disputes under common law, through a common law process of court (lex fori and lex loci). It is unclear whether a non-DIFC free zone entity engaged in financial services will be subject to the supervision of the Dubai Financial Services Authority in the same manner that applies to DIFC entities. ■

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