A parliamentary Bill has been tabled in the House of Lords that would stop sharia courts and tribunals in the UK from claiming that they have legal jurisdiction over criminal or family law. Anyone found guilty of doing so will face a five-year prison sentence. Sharia - or Islamic law - is used in around 85 Sharia councils and Muslim arbitration tribunals across the UK. The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill was introduced into the House of Lords by Baroness Caroline Cox (independent). She made it clear that her intention is to tackle the discrimination suffered by Muslim women within the Sharia court system. However, the Bill is carefully worded so that it applies to all arbitration tribunals. The Bill addresses human rights issues and does not mention Islam by name, but it specifically outlaws the practice of giving women's testimony half the weight of men's. The Bill proposes to protect women by stopping discriminatory rulings that are contrary to UK law and ensuring that Sharia law does not appear to have jurisdiction where it does not. Introducing the Bill, Baroness Cox said she was "deeply concerned" about the treatment of Muslim women by Sharia courts. "Equality under the law is a core value of British justice," she said. "My Bill seeks to stop parallel legal, or ‘quasi-legal’, systems taking root in our nation. "Cases of criminal law and family law are matters reserved for our English courts alone. "I want to make it perfectly clear in the law that discrimination against women shall not be allowed. "We must do all that we can to make sure they are free from any coercion, intimidation or unfairness." The Bill’s proposals include:
• A new criminal offence of ‘falsely claiming legal jurisdiction’ for any person who adjudicates upon matters which ought to be decided by criminal or family courts. The maximum penalty would be five years in prison. • Explicitly stating in legislation that sex discrimination law applies directly to arbitration tribunal proceedings. Discriminatory rulings may be struck down under the Bill. • Requiring public bodies to inform women that they have fewer legal rights if their marriage is unrecognised by English law. • Explicitly stating on the face of legislation that arbitration tribunals may not deal with matters of family law (such as legally recognised divorce or custody of children) or criminal law (such as domestic violence). • Making it easier for a civil court to set aside a consent order if a mediation settlement agreement or other agreement was reached under duress. • Explicitly stating on the face of legislation that a victim of domestic abuse is a witness to an offence and therefore should be expressly protected from witness intimidation.
Expressing his support for the Bill in the House of Lords, Bishop Nazir-Ali said Sharia was "inherently unequal". "Muslims and non-Muslims are treated unequally. Similarly, men and women are treated unequally. So if Sharia is recognised in any way in terms of the public law in this country, that introduces a principle of contradiction in the body of the law which will cause problems for the country and for people who will suffer, particularly women," he said. He warned that equality before the law would be "immediately compromised" if Sharia law were recognised in public law. Under Sharia law, for example, a man may divorce his wife simply by 'declaring' it three times, while a woman may have to seek permission from her husband, pay money and submit an application to a Sharia ‘court’. The bishop added: "We need to make sure that people have free access to the courts and equal protection from the state, as far as their fundamental rights are concerned." Anne Marie Waters of the One Law for All campaign commented: "We welcome any Bill that can halt the advancement of sharia courts and religious tribunals in Britain and promote equal rights. It is particularly important that women are informed of their rights under British law, and that domestic violence or other family or criminal law matters are not dealt with by sharia-based bodies – these put women at a grave disadvantage and treat children as the property of their fathers." Aina Khan, a solicitor who advises on sharia law, has mixed feelings about the Bill. She says: "It is good in parts. I would like to see best practice in sharia councils, like in the Beth Din model and I would like some legislation. I don't want somebody opening up a sharia board in their front room. Of course sex discrimination laws must apply. But there are some alarmist tones in the bill. Where she goes wrong is assuming that some sort of misogyny and discrimination goes on. Eighty per cent of (the Sharia courts') users are women." Khurshid Drabu, adviser on constitutional affairs to the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "Bills of this kind don't help anybody. They don't appear to understand that we live in a free country where people can make free choices. Yet again, it appears to be a total misunderstanding of the concept that underpins these arbitration councils. Sharia councils operate under consent. If there is a woman who suffers as a result of a decision by one of these councils a woman is free to go to the British courts."
Please write: COMMENT in this box to verify that you are human