Basics of Saudi Family Law System


Taken from the U.S. Department of State and Islamic Family Law Project of Emory University

The Saudi Arabian legal system is based on Shari'aShari'a courts exercise jurisdiction over common criminal cases and civil suits regarding marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Such jurisdiction extends to non-Muslims for crimes committed in the country. Shari'a courts base judgments largely on their interpretation of the Koran and the Sunna.

Cases involving relatively small penalties are tried in Shari'a summary courts. More serious crimes are adjudicated in Shari'a courts of common pleas. Appeals from Shari'a courts are made to the courts of appeal. The Government permits Shi'a Muslims to use their own legal tradition to adjudicate noncriminal cases within their community. There is no comparable right for non-Muslims or foreigners, whose cases are handled in regular Shari'a courts.

Other civil proceedings, including those involving claims against the Government and enforcement of foreign judgments, are held before specialized administrative tribunals, such as the Commission for the Settlement of Labor Disputes and the Board of Grievances.

The military justice system has jurisdiction over uniformed personnel and civil servants that are charged with violations of military regulations. The Minister of Defense and Aviation and the King review the decisions of courts-martial.

The Supreme Judicial Council is not a court and may not reverse decisions made by a court of appeals. However, the Council may review lower court decisions and refer them back to the lower court for reconsideration.

The Council of Senior Religious Scholars is an autonomous body of 20 senior religious jurists, including the Minister of Justice. It establishes the legal principles to guide lower-court judges in deciding cases.

Judges are appointed by the Justice Ministry and confirmed by the Royal Diwan (Royal Court). The Ministry exercises judicial, financial, and administrative control of the courts. The Supreme Judicial Council, whose members appointed by the King, may discipline or remove judges.

Source of Law

The main sources of Saudi law are Hanbali fiqh as set out in a number of specified classical scholarly treatises by authoritative jurists, other Hanbali sources, other schools of law, state regulations and royal decrees (where these are relevant), and custom and practice.

Royal decrees have been used to direct courts to base judgements on several authoritative classical treatises by Hanbali jurists (e.g., al-Mughni of ibn Qudamah). A resolution of the Supreme Judicial Council passed in 1928 also directed the courts to rely on particular Hanbali sources in civil matters.

Standard Hanbali fiqh is applied to personal status cases.

Schools of Fiqh

The Hanbali school is the official madhhab in Saudi Arabia. There is also a Shi'i minority adhering to the Jaf'ari school.

Constitutional Status

Saudi Arabia has no formal constitution. The functions of a constitution are served by the Basic Law articulating the government's rights and responsibilities issued by King Fahd in March 1992. Article 1 of the Basic Law declares Islam the official state religion and the Qur'an and sunnah the Constitution. The Basic Law also provides that "[t]he state protects the rights of the people in line with the Islamic shari'a," affirms the independence of the judiciary and states that administration of justice is based on "shari'a rules according to the teachings of the holy Qur'an, the sunnah, and the regulations set by the ruler provided that they do not contradict the holy Qur'an and sunnah". Article 9 of the Basic Law states that "the family is the kernel of Saudi society, and its members shall be brought up on the basis of the Islamic faith". Article 26 provides that the state protects human rights "in accordance with the Islamic Shari'a"

Court System

Shari'a Courts have general and residual jurisdiction, i.e., jurisdiction over any case or matter the jurisdiction over which has not been expressly assigned to another tribunal. There are four levels of shari'a courts: Minor Courts, General Courts, Cassation Court, and the Supreme Judicial Council. Civil claims may also go to the Amarah in which case the Amir attempts to guide the parties in a dispute to a compromise; the matter is ultimately referred to the courts if a settlement is not reached. There are also a number of specialized tribunals for settling disputes in specific areas, such as commercial or labor law; these specialized tribunals are formed under various ministries outside of the Ministry of Justice. The highest appellate tribunal in all matters, the Board of Grievances, is also independent of the Ministry of Justice, and since its reorganization in 1982 has been made directly responsible to the King.

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