As keepers, fountains of justice, Ethiopian courts have been playing significant roles (still they could do more) in the administration of justice. Since the Ethiopian State is federal, the courts, whose independence and significance is assured in the FDRE Constitution, are generally structured at federal and state levels. These constitutionally recognized adjudicatory organs are mostly the ordinary courts of law. City and social courts dealing with frequent and/or minor municipal matters are as well other feature of the judicial system in Ethiopia (Addis Ababa City Courts could be illustrious here). Quasi-judicial organs such as the Labour Relations Board (established by the labour law) and Tax Appeal Tribunal (established by tax laws) are other interesting components in the administration of justice. There are also religious and customary courts with limited jurisdiction focusing on maters of personal relations with the consent of disputing parties. Indeed the House of Federation (the upper house of the two parliaments), having the jurisdiction to adjudicate constitutional matters, could also be mentioned in passing.

Let us have a quick look into the ordinary federal courts structures (saving the others for later). Their material and territorial jurisdiction is mainly determined by the Federal Courts Proclamation No. 25/96 (as amended by Proclamations including 138/98 and 321/2003). Well for those of you familiar with the Ethiopian laws, the two procedure codes, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Civil Procedure Code, should come immediately to your minds. These codes, as you know, are like, what should we say, a bible to courts (pretty the same for lawyers as well). There are also a couple of special procedures available for peculiar sorts of cases which courts might need to consult.

On the basis of the Federal Courts Proclamation, the criminal jurisdiction of federal courts includes offences against the “Constitutional order”, against “law of nations” (which should mean international law), against “interests of the federal government”, and offences committed by “employees of the federal Government” in their official capacity. A word of caution: these are just illustrations. Regarding their civil jurisdiction, cases to which a federal organ is a party, suits between persons permanently residing in different regions, cases to which foreigners are parties, suits regarding negotiable instruments, and intellectual property could be cited as examples (for the whole list of matters falling under federal courts, you could look at the Proclamation which could be accessed from the Supreme Court website).

In the exercise of their jurisdictions, one might wonder as to how the federal courts are arranged in their first instance, appellate or another form, if any, of jurisdiction. These courts have three levels: Federal First Instance Courts (FFICs), Federal High Courts (FHCs), and the Federal Supreme Court (FSC). FFICs, which could have as many divisions (such as civil or labour benches or this-or-that locality benches) as the situations required, hear cases for first time. FHCs, which sometimes hear cases for first time such as civil cases worth Birr 500,000, are normally appellate courts. Although it might have very exceptional first instance jurisdiction, the FSC, the highest judicial organ, has an appellate jurisdiction for cases decided by the FHCs. Its Cassation Division (opposed to its Ordinary Division which reviews cases by appeal) has the power to examine final decisions given by all courts – including the final decisions of the highest judicial organs of National Regional States – where it believes that the decisions “contain fundamental error of law”.

In the actual exercise of their powers, federal courts are limited to cases arising in Addis Ababa and Dire-Dawa, the two cities administered by the federal government and subjected to federal jurisdiction. Other federal matters, which should normally have been considered by federal courts, are tried by National Regional State courts through delegation, a fascinating arrangement between federal and regional courts. This arrangement seems to aim at efficient use of the country’s meager resources (you could imagine how difficult it could be for the federal government to establish federal courts throughout the country at all times!)  The arrangement would also contribute to the continuous interaction of regional and federal courts in favour of ensuring uniformity of interpretation and application of laws of the State. But one thing to keep in mind here: the federal government can at any time establish federal courts wherever the need arises.

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