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Above: The introduction of Hindi as a court language will benefit over 2.6 million Indians in the UAE/Photo: facebook

The move of UAE to make Hindi a court language will pay dividends vis-a-vis the expats, boost business and improve transparency

By Bikram Vohra in Dubai

In November 2018, the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department (ADJD) took a major step in improving transparency and convenience for both plaintiffs and defendants. It announced the official option, in civil and commercial cases involving non-Arabic speaking defendants, to receive their case documents translated into English. And this February, the ADJD announced that Hindi would be the third official language after Arabic and English in court proceedings.

This courtesy came as a major boon to litigants because until then, they had to depend on the Arabic version and get each page transcribed into English with much of the content and argument lost in translation. This led to both sides being unsure of exactly how their case was going forward and whether or not the evidence for argument was being presented to their satisfaction.

The new rules introduced by the ADJD apply to civil and commercial courts only, where the plaintiff is usually claiming money from the defendant, but it was a major step. Abu Dhabi courts are the first in the region to add English as an official second language, according to Chief Justice Yousef Al Abri, under-secretary in the judicial department. “Our court system is going hand in hand with the ambitious economic plans of our leaders,” Al Abri told a daily newspaper, adding that it made sense on several grounds. “A bilingual court will assure clarity, transparency and certainty for non-Arabic parties to a litigation. This is an essential step for improving non-Arabic speaking litigants’ access to justice and for enabling them to make better use of our court services.”

At that time, no one really thought there would be any further linguistic addition and the introduction of English translations was seen as a major breakthrough, which it was. At least, the legalese was understood and anomalies and errors in evidence became easier to spot and rectify. Immediately, the Abu Dhabi legal system saw a rise in the efficiency of dispensing cases.

This action was not taken off the cuff. The judicial department carefully studied the multilingual courts of Switzerland and Canada before taking this step. It felt that if it could take the concept and re-mould it to its advantage, it was worth consideration. The basic idea was to enhance Abu Dhabi even further as an attractive destination for foreign investors by reducing the risk factor and upgrading faith and trust in the dispensation of justice where commercial deals were concerned.

Hesham Elrafei, a legal expert in the judicial department, was widely quoted as saying: “Some companies were reluctant to invest in Abu Dhabi when they found out that court cases are filed only in Arabic. As an investor, it would feel as though it is too risky—if a dispute arose, I wouldn’t even be able to read the court files.” This fog has now been lifted.

There was also the additional cost of translation to be borne. For a document of several hundred pages, this could amount to as much as 100 AED (one dirham is approximately Rs 18.92) a page. Now, as it is the plaintiff’s responsibility, the scripts are much shorter and can no longer be stretched because it is up to him to pay for the English version.

The open-minded approach to judicial processes received another boost this February when the ADJD announced that Hindi would be the third official language after Arabic and English in court proceedings. This certainly came as a surprise and added a whole new dimension because the Department felt “that such an addition would allow Hindi speakers to learn about litigation procedures and their rights and responsibilities without a language barrier. Interactive forms in Hindi will now be made available on its website”.

The logic is solid. There are over 2.6 million Indians in situ in the UAE and most of them understand the lighter speech version of Hindi which across the subcontinent goes as “Hindustani”, and is colloquially comprehensible to people from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana, as it is to those who come from the Hindi belt.

This language is also largely understood by Pakistani expats who can decipher it through their knowledge of Urdu and figure out much of what is being said. By sheer closeness and sharing of work and living spaces, most Bangladesh is also pick up more than a smattering of Hindi and their knowledge of Bengali aids the process. As a result, Hindi becomes the right option for a majority of the foreign sub-continental population and affords them awareness and access to court proceedings they are involved in. Even Sri Lankans can, with a little help, understand what is going on in a specific case. Hindi, through history and habit, has become a sort of UAE expat language of choice and is not limited to Indians only. Add Nepal and you have five countries being given a boost in language.

The courtesy aside, there is also an added benefit in employment for translators and interpreters with the necessary skills and the formation of a third network between various legal entities so that they work in smooth consonance in the courts. Al Abri has gone on record saying the change would help attract foreign investment and enhance Abu Dhabi’s reputation as a destination for skilled labour.

These changes are all part of a plan to reinforce the effectiveness and sustainability of judicial processes and ensure “universal access to services”. It is integrated to the overall initiative called “Tomorrow 2021”. “The adoption of multilingual interactive forms for claim sheets, grievances and requests, aims to promote judicial services in line with the plan ‘Tomorrow 2021’ and increase transparency of litigation procedures through the provision of bilingual forms which allows foreigners to know the litigation procedures, their rights and duties without a language barrier,” Al Abri told the media.

He is right. Anyone who has had litigation issues and been to court, without the ability to understand Arabic, has found himself lost in the wilderness and dependent on his lawyer for explanations even to the point of not knowing when the next date of hearing was. The litigant would just stand there, asking, “what’s going on, what’s he saying, what is the position”, often getting little response from his lawyer. This was followed by an arduous and expensive translation that didn’t always offer clarity.

Abu Dhabi authorities see these steps as integral to the ambitious economic spurt they expect over the next few years and designed to create a certain clarity and transparency for the non-Arabic population, according to Al Abri.

The comfort zone for the average labourer, for example, who finds he has not received his just dues has now improved exponentially because he is part of the process, not just someone on the outside waiting for a judgment. By having this edge, he can now raise legitimate questions and expect answers.

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