Flag of the Maldives

The Maldives is a constitutional democracy made up of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, comprised of 18 administrative atolls. Most of the Maldives sits less than six feet above sea level, and 189 of the islands are populated. The nation has just over half a million residents, most of whom speak both the national language, Dhivehi, and English. In the 3rd century, peoples from nearby India and Sri Lanka came to parts of the Maldives and introduced Buddhism to indigenous communities. New waves of Muslim settlers arrived in the 12th century, the current Maldivian constitution designates Islam as the state religion (see below). After a brief period of Portuguese rule, the country was a protectorate of the Dutch in the 17th century and later the British. In 1887, the Maldives became a self-governing British protectorate. The country declared itself an independent sultanate in 1965; three years later, the sultan was deposed by a referendum and presidential elections were held.

The first elected president, Mohamed Amin Didi, was the former prime minister during the sultanate and served as the president until January 19, 1954. In 2008, a new constitution was introduced, leading to the country’s first multi-candidate presidential election.

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Legal System

Maldives Constitution

Until the early 19th century, the justice system in the Maldives operated through a combination of customary law practices and Sharia. The first written constitution was adopted in 1932, establishing a formal court system. The country’s modern legal framework incorporates Islamic law and English common law.

The current constitution, promulgated in 2008, institutionalized the separation of powers and established an independent supreme court. Prior to this, the courts fell under the jurisdiction and control of the executive, with the president exercising final authority over judicial matters. The new constitution also created the Office of the Prosecutor General, removing prosecutorial powers from the Attorney General, who is the legal advisor to the President. There is a constitutional right to counsel; the Attorney General’s Office provides legal aid to indigent criminal defendants.


Constitutionally Created Commissions

The 2008 Constitution created a number of independent commissions tasked with various oversight responsibilities. They include: Judicial Service Commission, Human Rights Commission, Civil Service Commission, Election Commission, and the Anti-Corruption Commission.


Sharia Law

The 2008 constitution declared Islam the state religion. The Constitution guarantees freedom of expression so long as it is exercised in a manner that is "not contrary to any tenet of Islam.” It also mandates that judges rely on Sharia when the constitution and legislation are silent on a legal issue. When interpreting a law or regulation, courts are directed to consider Islam as well as international law and the decisions of foreign jurisdictions. Legislation found to be contrary to Islam is void. The Maldives criminal code incorporates the application of Sharia punishments for certain offenses including murder, apostasy, and drinking alcohol.

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The Judiciary

The Maldives has a three-tier court system: a supreme court, high court, and first instance superior and lower courts with approximately 200 judges. The supreme, high, and superior courts all sit in Malé City. There are magistrate courts are on the islands.

Supreme Court of the Maldives

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal and has the power of constitutional review of legislation passed by the parliament (Majlis). It has supervisory authority over the lower courts, including issuing rules of court procedure. The court has original jurisdiction over: disputes over the disqualification or removal of a member of parliament and presidential and vice-presidential candidates; the election or removal of a president; and declarations of a state of emergency. It has inherent jurisdiction over legal issues that threaten the constitutional order, disputes between two governmental institutions over questions of constitutional interpretation, and constitutional issues concerning the public interest. The Supreme Court also has advisory jurisdiction: parliament can request consideration of important questions of law and constitutional interpretation; its opinions on these matters are presented to parliament.

There are seven supreme court justices, including the chief justice. They are nominated by the president in consultation with the Judicial Services Commission and have to be confirmed by a majority of the People’s Majlis (parliament). Candidates to the court must be at least thirty years old, educated in shariah law or shariah and law, and have at least seven years’ experience as a judge or practicing lawyer,. Justices serve until the mandatory retirement age of 70.


High Court

There is a single High Court in the Maldives. It has eleven members, including the chief judge. Sitting in panels of three judges, it hears appeals from the lower courts and tribunals and has original jurisdiction over cases designated by the constitution and legislation. The High Court also has the power to review the constitutionality of legislation and regulations.


Lower Courts

The lower courts hear all cases not otherwise within the jurisdiction of the supreme and high courts. They are divided into superior courts and magistrates courts.

There are four superior courts: criminal, civil, juvenile and family courts. The Drug court, established under the Narcotics Control Act, sits at the same level as superior courts. Unlike in many other countries, the Drug Court in the Maldives does not adjudicate narcotics cases. Instead it focuses on rehabilitation. Cases are referred to the drug court if the offender pleads guilty to the offense, is willing to under go assessment and participate in a rehabilitation program, and meets other conditions prescribed by the court. Offenders enrolled in the drug court program must appear in court for regularly scheduled status hearings. Offenders who successfully complete the Drug Court program will have their sentences suspended.

There are 187 magistrate courts that hear misdemeanors, civil and family cases. All inhabited islands that do not have a superior court should have a magistrate court and every island that has a population of at least 500 people have a resident magistrate. Cases from islands without a magistrate are heard by a magistrate from a neighboring island.



The Employment Tribunal hears labor-related disputes, and the Tax Tribunal hears tax cases. Appeals from both tribunals are heard by the High Court.

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Judicial Services Council

Maldives Judicial Services Council

The Judicial Services Commission is an independent, constitutionally created body that advises the president and parliament on judiciary-related matters. It is responsible for the appointment, and transfer of all judges except those on the Supreme Court. It makes recommendations to the president regarding the appointment of Supreme Court justices, including the chief justice. The Commission also sets rules regarding judicial recruitment and judicial ethics standards.

The Commission investigates complaints related to judicial conduct and is authorized to take disciplinary actions, including recommendations for dismissal. A judge may only be dismissed upon a finding of gross incompetence or misconduct; two-thirds of parliament approve the Commission’s resolution to dismiss a judge.

The Commission’s ten members include the Speaker of the People’s Majlis (parliament), judges from the supreme, high, and trial courts (elected by their court peers), a representative from parliament, one member of the general public (appointed by parliament), the chair of the Civil Service Commission, the attorney general, one member of the bar (elected by peers), and one presidential appointee. Members serve a five-year term and may be reappointed to a second term. The Chief Justice cannot be a member of the Judicial Service Commission.

The Office of Judicial Administration is under the jurisdiction of the Commission. It is tasked with overseeing all administrative matters related to the courts.


Judicial Selection and Tenure

The Maldives Judicial Service Commission appoints judges to the high courts and lower courts. To be eligible for a judicial position, a candidate must be at least 25 years old, a Sunni Muslim, and have a first degree in either law or Sharia. High Court candidates must have at least five years legal experience. Judges in the Maldives serve until the mandatory retirement age of 70.

The Maldives Judicial Academy is under the Department of Judicial Administration. It conducts continuous professional education for judges, court staff, and the bar.

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Bar Council of the Maldives

The Bar

There is a single bar association in the Maldives, the Bar Council of Maldives. It regulates the profession, including professional conduct and discipline. Most attorneys are located in Malé, posing challenges for legal representation on the islands.

The law school curriculum at Maldives National University combines common law and Sharia education. It is a three-year course study and graduates 80 – 100 lawyers each year. In recent years other academic institutions have been established in the Maldives that offer LLB programs.