Legal update: UAE introduces several progressive legal amendments covering aspects of family law, criminal law and the civil code

November 09, 2020
By Abdulla Ziad Galadari

On Saturday 7 November, the UAE introduced several progressive amendments to the Penal Code, Criminal Law and Inheritance Law. The decrees, issued by President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, are seen as a continuation of the countries endeavours to develop legislative foundations and secure foreign direct investment.

Effective immediately, the decrees cover divorce, wills and inheritance, amongst others, which will primarily affect the UAE’s expatriates, particularly when it comes to their affairs being dealt with by the laws of their home country.

Personal Status Code


This is one of the most significant updates, which relates to divorce and the division of assets. Previously, in a marriage the laws of the country of each spouse would apply. With the amendments to the Personal Status Code, the laws of the country where the marriage took place will apply. In instances of divorce, again the laws of the country where the marriage took place will apply, as opposed to the husband’s nationality at the time of marriage, divorce or of legal proceedings being initiated.

When dividing joint assets and accounts, the court can be called on to mediate if no agreement is in place between the parties.


Expatriates living in the UAE have now been given the option to choose the law which will apply to their inheritance. A person may stipulate in their Will the terms of the post-mortem and which countries law should be used, however where there is no Will in place, or it is not specifically mentioned in the Will, the laws of the country of nationality of the deceased person will apply.

The single exception to this is property purchased in the UAE, which still be dealt with under UAE law.

Penal Code 

Harassment, assault and honour crimes

Some of the most prominent and important revisions are related to the protection of women’s rights. Primarily, the elimination of the article of law which reduced the punishment for ‘honour crimes’. Previously, a male relative would have received a lesser sentence for assaulting a female relative, if was perceived as ‘protecting honour’. These crimes will now be treated in the same way as any other assault.

There will be harsher penalties for those convicted of harassment, including street harassment, and stalking. It has also been recognised that the victim could be male or female.

In a welcome update, the punishment for sexual offences have been amended. Consensual sex between two adults with full mental capacity will no longer be punished by law. However, even if consensual, a culprit will be punished if the victim (male or female);

  1. Is under the age of 14 years
  2. Does not have full mental capacity
  3. Is a first degree relative
  4. Is under their care

A person convicted of rape of a minor or someone with limited mental capacity will be punished by the death penalty.

Decency laws have been amended to state that the punishment for those caught committing an indecent act in public will be a financial fine for a first offence, rather than a prison sentence.


Cohabitation between an unmarried couple or unrelated mixed sex flatmates is now legal. Previously, it was rare for authorities to prosecute, however it did happen on occasion. Therefore, those moving to the country or looking to live with a partner can rest assured they are not breaking any laws.


Previously, it was possible for someone attempting suicide to be prosecuted, however as per the amendments this is no longer the case the courts may choose to send the person for mental health support. This often happened previously, however decriminalising suicide and attempted suicide removes much of the stigma surrounding mental health.

A person found to be assisting another to commit suicide will be punished by a jail term.

‘Good Samaritans’

Previously, under a rarely used clause, it was possible for a person to be held accountable for an individual’s injury or death if first aid, including CPR, was given unsuccessfully. The new law specifically states that “any person who is committing an act out of good intention, that may end up hurting that person, will not be punished.”

Alcohol consumption

The consumption of alcohol is no longer a criminal offence, provided it is consumed in a private place or licenced public place. An alcohol licence is no longer required, this applied across all emirates.

Prior to the new law, individuals could face prosecution for consuming alcohol without a licence, if they were arrested for another offence.

The age restriction still applies, and a person must be at least 21 years old to legally drink alcohol. Additionally, anyone caught serving, selling to or buying alcohol for a person under 21 years will be punished.

Judicial procedure

In the UAE onshore courts, only Arabic is spoken between the judge and lawyers, therefore it is now mandatory for legal translators to be provided for defendants and witnesses who do not speak Arabic.

Additionally, evidence and personal information of a victim of crimes related to indecent acts must not be publicly disclosed, under new privacy laws.

For further information or clarification on the amendments and how they may affect individuals and their families please contact