A Brief Note on Courts in Ethiopia and their Structure

As custodians of justice, Courts in Ethiopia have played significant roles in the administration of justice, though there is always room for improvement. Given Ethiopia’s federal structure, courts whose independence and significance are assured in the FDRE Constitution are structured at both federal and state levels. These constitutionally recognized adjudicatory organs are primarily the ordinary courts of law. Additionally, city and social courts address frequent and minor municipal matters (Addis Ababa City Courts are a notable example). Quasi-judicial bodies such as the Labor Relations Board (established by the labor law) and the Tax Appeal Tribunal (established by tax laws) also play vital roles in the administration of justice. Furthermore, religious and customary Courts in Ethiopia, with limited jurisdiction focusing on personal relations and contingent on the consent of disputing parties, are part of the system. The House of Federation, which adjudicates constitutional matters, is also worth mentioning.

Let’s examine the structure of the ordinary federal Courts in Ethiopia, with other court types to be discussed separately. The material and territorial jurisdiction of these courts is primarily determined by the Federal Courts Proclamation No. 1234/2022 (as amended by subsequent proclamations). For those familiar with Ethiopian law, the Civil Procedure Code and the Criminal Procedure Code are foundational texts for court proceedings, comparable to a bible for both courts and lawyers. There are also special procedures for specific types of cases which Courts in Ethiopia may need to reference.

Under the Federal Courts Proclamation, the criminal jurisdiction of federal courts includes offenses against the constitutional order, international law, interests of the federal government, and offenses committed by federal government employees in their official capacity. These are merely examples. Regarding civil jurisdiction, federal Courts in Ethiopia handle cases involving federal organs, disputes between individuals residing in different regions, cases involving foreigners, and disputes related to negotiable instruments and intellectual property. For a comprehensive list, refer to the Proclamation available on the Supreme Court website.

In terms of their hierarchical arrangement, federal Courts in Ethiopia are organized into three levels: Federal First Instance Courts (FFICs), Federal High Courts (FHCs), and the Federal Supreme Court (FSC). FFICs, which can have multiple divisions (e.g., civil, labor, or specific locality benches), hear cases at the first instance. FHCs, which sometimes have original jurisdiction over significant civil cases (e.g., those exceeding 10,000,000), typically serve as appellate courts.

The FSC, the highest judicial organ, primarily has appellate jurisdiction over cases decided by the FHCs, although it may have original jurisdiction in exceptional cases. Its Cassation Division, distinct from its Ordinary Division which reviews cases on appeal, has the authority to review final decisions from all courts—including the highest judicial organs of National Regional States—if those decisions are believed to contain fundamental errors of law.

In practice, federal courts’ jurisdiction is limited to cases arising in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, the two cities under federal administration. Federal matters arising elsewhere are often handled by National Regional State courts through delegation, an arrangement designed to optimize the use of limited resources and foster consistency in the interpretation and application of state laws. This system also promotes interaction between regional and federal courts. However, the federal government retains the authority to establish federal courts in other locations as needed.

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