Country Profile: Brunei

This Country Profile provides a basic overview of the legal history and institutional structures of Brunei Darussalam (Negara Brunei Darussalam), based on research produced by the Library of Congress. Under Brunei's Constitution, Islamic law (sharīʿa or fiqh) is the principal source of legislation. 

Country Background

Brunei is located in Southeastern Asia, along the northern coast of the island of Borneo. The country is bounded by the South China Sea to the north and Malaysia to the south. The capital of Brunei is Bandar Seri Begawan. The official language is Malay. The country’s population in 2016 was approximately 443,593. The official religion of Brunei is Islam. Brunei is a predominantly Muslim country, with about 79% of the population Muslim. Due to its oil and gas reserves, Brunei is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and has one the world's highest standards of living. Brunei is a member state of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Constitution & Legal Structure

Brunei is referred to as an absolute monarchy or sultanate. A British colony since 1888, Brunei was the only Malay state in 1963 which chose to remain part of the Commonwealth rather than join the federation that became Malaysia. Brunei fully gained its independence in 1984. The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, is one of the world's longest-reigning and few remaining absolute monarchs. In 1991 he introduced the Malay Muslim Monarchy, which presented the monarchy as the defender of the faith (Islam).

The Parliament of Brunei was suspended from 1984 to 2004. Although Parliament was reinstated in 2004, the people of Brunei cannot elect any government officials and the parliament is constructed of a 20 member council appointed by the Sultan himself. In fact, the Sultan wields broad powers under a state of emergency that has been in effect since 1984, and no legislative elections have been held since then. Citizens often voice concerns to their leaders through a traditional system under which government-vetted, elected village chiefs meet periodically with top government officials. Although the citizens of Brunei do not have much political authority, Brunei has one of the highest standards of living in the world. The government provides its citizens with free medical care, free education, subsidized housing, and generous pensions. As such, the majority of Brunei's citizens are pleased with their government and in fact, the royal family is revered by its subjects. 

Constitutional Status of Islamic Law

As of 2014, Islamic law has constitutional status in Brunei. In 2014, the Sultan revised Brunei's penal code in three phases:

  • Phase 1: introduces fines or jail terms for offenses ranging from indecent behavior, failure to attend Friday prayers, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
  • Phase 2: corporal punishment for crimes such as theft and robbery.
  • Phase 3: death penalty for offenses including sodomy and abortion.

This introduction of Islamic law established Brunei as the first East Asian country to adopt sharīʿa. Although the penal code applies to all citizens regardless of religion, many of the specific offenses (e.g., consuming alcohol, adultery, indecent behavior, etc.) are applicable to the Muslim population only. As of this writing, Brunei has only implemented the first phase. 

Jurisdiction(s) of Islamic Law

The legal system of Brunei is a dual legal system. The first system follows the British common law system with some Islamic law influences, especially as of 2014. However, this court system is quite similar to those established in India, Singapore, and Malaysia. It is comprised of a magistrate at its lowest level, then intermediate courts, and finally the Supreme Court. There is also a Court of Appeals that meets biannually. 

The second legal system is a sharīʿa court system. This legal system takes precedence over the first when concerning matters of inheritance, marriage and divorce, and sex crimes. The sharīʿa court system is similar to the common law court structure except that it does not have an intermediate court. 

Dominant School of Islamic Law

The dominant school of Islamic law is the Shāfiʿī school of Sunnī Islam, which is the school of the majority of Muslims in the country.

Sources of Law for Legal Research

Official Publications

Unofficial Databases

  • FAOLEX: Brunei (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) database of national laws and regulations on food, agriculture, and renewable natural resources.
  • NATLEX: Brunei (International Labour Organization) database of national laws on labor, social security, and related human rights.
  • RefWorld Legal Information: Brunei (UNHCR)
  • WIPO Lex: Brunei (World Intellectual Property Organization)


For an extended list of legal resources for this country, see the Library of Congress’s Research Guide. The Constitution is available in the LOC Guide in its original language and at Constitute in English translation. For full versions of past constitutions, amendments, and related legislation, see HeinOnline World Constitutions Illustrated or Oxford Constitutions of the World [subscription required for each].