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Presentation of DIFC Courts Work Plan 2018 by Chief Justice Michael Hwang

Presentation of DIFC Courts Work Plan 2018 by Chief Justice Michael Hwang

February 28, 2018

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Good morning everyone and thank you for attending this event today.

It gives me great pleasure in briefing you on our plans for the year ahead. This year is a year of continuity. We are now mid-way through our five-year strategic plan and we will maintain our road map to success along the same directions as we have done in previous years.

Just to remind you, we have four cardinal themes on how we have planned the Courts’ mission. First is judicial excellence; second, we aim for connectivity worldwide; third, we aim at service excellence; and finally, we always bear in mind that, to achieve service excellence, we need to rely very heavily on innovation.

We stick to these major aims for a simple reason – they work. I would like to give you a sneak preview of our results of last year. CFI cases increased by 17% as compared to 2016. Small Claims Tribunal cases increased by a whopping 67% over the figures for 2016. And, if we go back a bit further and if you compare 2017 to 2014, our SCT figures have tripled.

One of the possible causes for this increase is that we increased the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Tribunal (SCT). So, in a sense, we cannibalised the market potential for our CFI, but despite that, CFI cases have increased, and SCT has gained tremendous importance, possibly beyond what Sir Anthony Evans envisaged when he first introduced the system. Therefore, we must be doing something right.

This time next year, I will no longer be Chief Justice; I will reach the statutory retirement age of 75 in the last quarter of this year. This is not the time for a farewell speech as I intend to do lot more in this last year. But I mention it to connect to the celebration of our 10th anniversary of going fully operational as a court. Let me now give more details of what we intend to do in each of our chosen fields of endeavour.

 

Judicial Excellence

First and possibly the most important – judicial excellence. Our success as a court is above all due to the high quality of our bench over these last ten years. We have an independent, learned, and experienced bench that has earned trust and confidence, both locally and globally. We intend to maintain and improve on the quality of justice, not only through our senior judges, but also through the work of our registrars and judicial officers.

Our courts must dispense justice in a manner that will conform with our KPIs and give our users a service that will leave all users satisfied with the manner and efficiency in which the case has been handled, even if one or more of them may be unhappy about its outcome.

Moving on, most of you here would attended the Annual Gala Dinner and will recall that I announced the impending retirement of Mark Beer from the DRA and the DIFC Courts. That will take effect in the end of September this year, and we have already started the transition. Amna Al Owais has assumed the role of Chief Executive and Registrar of the DIFC Courts, with Mark retaining a position of Consultant Registrar for the purposes of continuity. Mark will also continue his role as Chief Executive of the DRA until the end of September, at which time Amna, who is now Deputy Chief Executive of the DRA, will succeed Mark. Accordingly, Amna’s responsibilities will be increasingly focused on DRA operations during this transition.

This in turn means that the Registry needs a new Deputy Registrar. We have been interviewing candidates for the post which was once held by Amna herself. I am happy to announce that we have identified an outstanding candidate who will come on board very shortly, hopefully as early as next week. Her name is Nour Kirk. She is an Arab Australian and fluent in Arabic and is an experienced dispute resolution practitioner, both in her native Australia, as well as Dubai. We are very excited about her joining us. Her portfolio will include maintaining the momentum of our existing measures, which aim at ensuring increasing efficiency in our services through the combination of technology and human experience. She will also focus on professional development and supporting UAE nationals to pursue senior careers within the DIFC Courts.

Turning now to the Small Claims Tribunal, the SCT will continue to enhance the Smart SCT Initiative and build on streamlining the user experience. We introduced a new Case Management System in 2017, which now permits the SCT process to be fully automated. In 2018, we will launch a new DIFC Courts mobile app, and that will be tested and launched with a dedicated portal section for SCT users.

Another development was the launch of the new Technology and Construction Division (TCD) in the second half of last year. This division will continue to hear complex cases of commercial disputes involving technology and construction. The new division draws on judges from our bench with professional experience in that field. We have also launched a new set of industry-specific rules designed to fast-track our dispute resolution process, and this will provide greater efficiency and speedy resolution of such disputes. I have appointed Sir Richard Field to oversee this division and he brings 20 years of experience in handling complex commercial disputes, including construction and technology in the London courts. In 2018, we will continue our work to ensure the success of this division.

This year we will also explore ADR mechanisms, such as mediation and the development of ad-hoc tribunals to assist large infrastructure and construction developments contracts. Such a service will help reduce costly and lengthy disputes and reduce the impact to large-scale, time-sensitive, projects. The purpose of this service would be to enable parties to resolve emerging disputes quickly and amicably. We are adopting a new name for this service called ‘Conflict Avoidance’.

We have to remember that DRA has a mandate to explore the whole world of dispute resolution solutions. We will continue to explore and improve all methods of dispute resolution, including mediation and other similar techniques. DIFC Courts are already well established in the world of international litigation. Our arbitration centre is also showing great promise after its relaunch two years ago. It is now time to pursue the development of other modes of ADR, including, in particular, the world of mediation.

I don’t know whether all of you have seen this, but I want to draw your attention to the issuance of Registrar’s Direction No. 1 of 2018, which highlights Part 27 of the rules of the DIFC Courts. Part 27 used to be entitled ‘Justice by Reconciliation’ and this Part has now been renamed “Alternative Dispute Resolution”. The Practice Direction reminds practitioners to be aware of alternative methods of dealing with cases and, in particular, there is a schedule in Part 27 granting the court power to issue an order requiring each party to a case to submit a list of three neutral persons who might then oversee the particular process of ADR which is chosen.

 

Connectivity

Now we move on to the next big pillar, which is connectivity. This has been an integral part of our strategy in seeking to be recognised as one of the world’s leading commercial courts.

This year we will aim to reinforce national partnerships within the UAE. In 2017 we were successful in finally completing a round of MOUs with all the other emirates. Now we are going beyond the Emirates into individual free zones and organisations within Dubai and elsewhere. We will first cement regional relationships and connect with more global commercial courts to maintain the strongest enforcement regimes. At the end of the day, what we are aiming for is (for cases that come to our courts and end up with judgments) to ensure that those judgments to will be enforceable in places where they need to be enforced.

This year we will continue to promote the DIFC Courts as the jurisdiction of choice and increase business opt-ins by engaging Dubai’s freezones, as well as large-scale infrastructure initiatives, such as the EXPO 2020. We hope to establish partnerships that promote the DIFC Courts as a preferred or exclusive default jurisdiction for dispute resolution, by whatever means.

The ease of enforcement remains the vital consideration for those who choose to use our courts. Throughout 2018 we will be working closely with other UAE courts to ensure that it remains smooth and streamlined.

A Court Bailiff will be appointed this year to assist with all enforcement-related matters in and outside of DIFC. We will also further foster our close relationship with Dubai Courts, and look at areas of mutual cooperation to achieve service excellence. We will focus on areas of common interest, for example, customer care, collaboration in areas of general marketing and communications, and jointly cooperate on initiatives for the Year of Zayed. We will also be working with other government agencies to celebrate the Year of Zayed to mark the great achievements of the founder of the UAE.

We will work on connecting with other GCC partners to promote the mutual understanding of each other’s laws and judicial processes. Globalisation means not only connecting with other courts simply to sign MOUs and have exchanges between us on areas of common interest, but to actively pursue the knowledge of each other’s laws and procedure.

We will be pursuing this year partnerships with other common law jurisdictions like Canada and Ireland, as well as enhancing judicial relations with courts in France and the newly formed Netherlands Commercial Court. As you may have heard, some of the other European countries, like Germany, are also starting to establish commercial courts and, where there is a commercial court, we will be there at the head of the queue to say: how about linking up with us as well?

We have a division called DRA Advisory Services, which markets our services to other countries and to help other jurisdictions with establishing a similar model of commercial court. I think by now you all must have heard that we have been instrumental in assisting in Kazakhstan in setting up the new Astana International Financial Centre.

There was a soft launch of this financial centre in January 2018, with the formal launch scheduled for July 2018. But that’s just the first project. You have no idea how many other countries are knocking at our doors to tap into our knowledge and expertise in the field of developing new English language commercial courts.

I think Ella Cornelia Moldoveanu, who is sitting in the back there, has just come back from Senegal, at an African conference, and I think she was fighting off suitors from left, right and centre. We are talking to interested parties in Latin America, Africa, and in Europe. So, there is a lot of room for the development of our expertise and our reputation.

These relationships are not just with other courts; we are also maintaining, through the Academy of Law, links with other institutions, tertiary institutions, to develop intellectual partnerships, which involve the study of law. We are looking particularly at those countries which have more than one legal tradition in their legal system. Canada is a very good example, in Quebec. We will be making some studies of the Quebec system, where they teach trans-systemic law, meaning that in certain Canadian universities (I think mainly in McGill and Ottawa), students are taught subjects on a twin tradition basis, which they call trans-systemic. So, if you teach contract, you come up with a subject like breach of contract, then the teacher will give them the common law version and the civil law version, and they absorb both traditions at the same time.

We would like to develop a greater understanding within our own jurisdiction of the two legal traditions that govern Dubai. How do you bring the civil lawyer in Dubai into the common law, for them to at least understand our system, and then eventually to enable them to practice in our Courts? The other thing is that having DIFC Courts hear a case is one matter but, when we have cases in our courts, very often the applicable law is UAE law, and we common law lawyers need to understand these civil laws much better. Now we are short, desperately short, of materials on UAE law, in English, so that’s one of the projects that I would like to start before the end of this year as an investment for the future.

We will increasingly be looking east, and in particular the developing of further relations with China; that’s a country on which we place high priority. For our part we have already signed an MoU with the Shanghai High Court. And I have personally engaged, as has Mark Beer, with senior Judges of the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing, and the discussions are ongoing. Technically, Dubai or the UAE, is not on the One Belt One Road (OBOR) route, but that does not prevent us from having a stake in it.

Singapore is not on the OBOR route, but it has a tremendously important part to play in the development of OBOR, in terms of banking and finance. Likewise, we could be involved in OBOR in our expertise in combining two legal systems. I have spoken in Beijing about our experience of how we are trying to actively acquire knowledge of other legal systems in order to enable our judgments to travel outside the UAE, and this has attracted some interest.

Back home, we have also concluded a MoU with Dubai Healthcare City Authority in January, and we are working on another MoU with Dubai Design & Fashion Council to offer SCT services in mediation.

I have to touch on Decree 19 of 2016 and the Joint Judicial Committee. It has proved challenging for us, as well as Dubai Courts, to arrive at unanimous decisions regarding alleged conflicts of jurisdiction between our two courts. All I can say at this moment is that we understand that there may be further legislative dimensions to clarify the provisions of this legislation. So, let’s leave it at that at this moment.

And finally, the continuing collaboration between the DIFC Courts and the Academy of Law is one of my personal joys. I actually am a frustrated academic and I started life as a university teacher and always said I would go back to academia upon retirement. I think I am trying to do that in advance by maintaining a close interest in the work of the Academy.

This year our two institutions are going to work together to launch the DIFC Advocates Emirati Programme. This initiative, in conjunction with the Dubai Legal Affairs Department (LAD), will provide education in three elements; (a) foundations of English common law, (b) DIFC laws and DIFC Courts Rules and Procedure; and (c) practical elements of advocacy skills. In this, Emirati lawyers with civil law backgrounds will have the opportunity to seek registration with the DIFC Courts, with the opportunity to represent Emirati as well as international clients.

I ask you to enter this date in your diaries; on November 8 the DIFC Courts will launch our 10th anniversary publication, which I have commissioned. This publication will celebrate those who worked hard over the years to make the courts what it is today. The yearly Gala Dinner will take place on the same evening, also providing an important platform for the UAE legal community, who come together to celebrate the decade-long achievements of DIFC Courts.

Let me now turn to the new Dubai Law No. 15 of 2017; the law of Administering Non-Muslims Estates in Dubai and Execution of Wills. This came into force at the beginning of this year. We have reworked the structure of the Wills and Probate Registry (WPR), which is now called the DIFC Wills Service Centre, with the DIFC Courts establishing a separate Registry for non-Muslims.

The purpose of this law is to have a uniform law for non-Muslim wills in the UAE, which can apply both onshore in Dubai and offshore in the DIFC. The aim of this legislation is to streamline the probate process between DIFC Courts and Dubai Courts with our wills, which have been probated in the DIFC Courts, going across to Dubai Courts for implementation. We know that there have been teething problems with that transition and recognition process, and we are hoping that, with work behind the scenes with Dubai Courts, the process will be much smoother in 2018 than it was last year.

We are also expanding the range of our offerings, and the potential user base of the non-Muslim community for our products. We now offer numerous online will templates, including the Freezone Company Will and the Financial Assets Will. We have a first of its kind Virtual Registry, which enables people who are eligible non-residents and investors living outside the UAE, to create, register and witness a will online via video conferencing from anywhere in the world.

Another very exciting development is the relationship we have been able to build up with Ras Al Khaimah. The Government there is very interested in us as a means of enhancing their own products and what they have to offer to the business community in overseas investment and trade. And so, we are working in close cooperation with them to develop certain programmes, one of which is the Wills service. The Academy of Law is playing a big part in developing this relationship, where we deliver wide ranging knowledge transfer and human capital development initiatives in 2018.

 

Service Excellence

And now we move into service excellence, which is our third pillar. We can only continue to maintain and enhance our reputation as one of the world’s leading commercial courts by achieving the highest standards of service. You will not be surprised to hear that this year we are going to implement ISO: 9001 quality management system as part of our improvement to our internal processes to better serve our users. Service is very much as at the forefront of our thinking.

In 2017, we were selected to join the Executive Committee of the International Consortium of Court Excellence (ICCE), which is a global organisation, and which is concerned with developing standards of excellence in courts on a global basis.

To build on this achievement, we have already earned a very high rating from the UAE Government in its government excellence programme. We are now aiming for a higher rating.

In conjunction with the International Consortium for Courts Excellence (ICCE), we are going to host the ICCE conference in Dubai in November this year. That conference will focus on court excellence and the use of technology to improve user experience.

And in September this year we will participate at the annual conference of the other international court administration organisation, the International Association for Court Administration (IACA). This conference will be held in Brazil. We actually held one of their conferences in Dubai a few years ago, at which point Mark Beer joined the executive committee, and Mark will assume the Presidency of IACA later this year. His Excellency Justice Ali Al Madhani of the DIFC Courts will continue his role as Chairman of IACA Middle East.

Service excellence initiatives will continue throughout the year in making DIFC Courts more user-centric and efficient. We will continue to conduct quarterly mystery shopping surveys; we must be the only court in the world that does this.

We also want to ensure that no phone call goes unanswered and every email received will be responded to promptly and properly. We have always achieved customer satisfaction scores above 80%, and we want to get that average higher to 90% this year.

 

Innovation

Finally, a big word on innovation. We can only remain among the world’s leading commercial courts by being among the most innovative. We intend to remain at the forefront and, because we are small and nimble, we can adopt innovative measures more quickly, subject to budget constraints.

Some of you in this room remember that in September last year we launched the Courts of the Future Forum. We have embarked on a new initiative, in cooperation with Dubai Future Foundation, to create this future forum which will consider new ways to oversee disruptive technology in the administration of justice. We have launched a worldwide global consultation, and, in February 2018, the Forum will discuss how the forum mandate will evolve to extend this initiative to other global commercial courts, and to engage specialised technology sector participation.

The most advanced court with future technology, in terms of prototype, in the world at the moment is Hangzhou, China. Why Hangzhou? It’s the headquarters of Alibaba. Alibaba have been working on technology in courts for several years, and that will continue. Accordingly, we announced in 2017 a collaboration with Hangzhou Arbitration Commission to work on areas of mutual interest where technology is concerned. We also penned in 2017 an agreement with Microsoft to develop a number of products that might be useful for courts globally.

Now, in line with Dubai’s vision to make this a smart city, and to make use of sophisticated technology to provide better public services, we have developed a new in-house web-based Case Management System (CMS). We have built on our existing e-Registry capabilities, and the new system enables users to access case management information from their mobile phones, tablets and other electronic devices in real time. To further CMS initiatives for 2018, DIFC Courts will introduce electronic bundles of documents for use in court to reduce the carbon footprint. This will also allow our numerous court users to access information from multiple locations.

This year we will also explore options to introduce a test-pilot blockchain enforcement scheme in conjunction with other government entities in Dubai.

Finally, in order to allow businesses to resolve disputes more expediently, the Small Claims Tribunal has introduced the option to use direct and instant messaging to give defendants notice. With initial adoption across SCT, we are proposing to extend this in 2018 under the CFI. E-service will include other forms of electronic service, possibly via Facebook and other social media platforms. In addition, we are opening a public consultation in 2018 to introduce a mechanism to allow parties before the CFI to receive notice, as a matter of right, through email.

So, let me close by saying this. We cannot achieve all of this in isolation. Our plans can best be achieved in co-operation with you, our partners (both here in the UAE and overseas).  We thank you for your support in 2017 and look forward to working together again in 2018 as we strive to deliver on the plans I have outlined here today. Please help me to make my last year a memorable one.

 

Thank you.

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