Legal and Juridical System

The current Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) (proclaimed in 1995) has introduced many changes in the judicial system of Ethiopia. Among the major changes are: the establishment of an independent judiciary; provision for a three-layered federal and regional court system; provision for the extraordinary jurisdiction of the Federal Supreme Court to “review and correct any final decision of a basic error of law”, including a decision of the Federal Supreme Court; and the establishment of Federal and Regional Judicial Administration Councils for the appointment and dismissal of judges with a view to avoiding government interference.

Ethiopian law is essentially based on civil law, even though vestiges of the common law system are in evidence in some laws, notably the civil procedure code and the maritime code. Significantly, commercial and industrial laws are mainly influenced by the civil law.

The highest federal judicial authority is the Federal Supreme Court, followed by the Federal High Court and the Federal First Instance Courts. Similarly, State Supreme Courts have the final judicial power over state affairs. According to the Constitution, State Supreme Courts and State High Courts are to exercise the jurisdiction of the Federal High and First Instance Courts where the latter two have not been established. Municipal courts are organized in a similar manner. Although the Constitution forbids the establishment of special or ad hoc courts, it permits the House of Peoples’ Representatives and State Councils to establish or give official recognition to customary and religious courts, especially where such courts have functioned with government recognition prior to the adoption of the present Constitution.

To ensure efficiency through specialization, courts are organized into civil, criminal and labor benches. Commercial courts have yet to be established, although the intent to do so has been frequently expressed. Amharic, the working language of the Federal Government, is the official language of Federal Courts. Although English is in practice the second working language of the Federal Government, documents written in English or in other foreign languages need to be translated into Amharic in order to be accepted by Federal Courts. Cases must be submitted and argued in Amharic in all Federal Courts. State Courts adjudicate in their state languages. The practice of law is reserved for Ethiopians. However, foreign nationals have the right to appear in courts as witnesses. In such cases, the foreigner is allowed to communicate through a court-appointed translator.