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Justice: Sharia Law

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 4 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they support the implementation of Sharia Law in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, Sharia law is not part of the law of the United Kingdom and the Government have no intention of making any change to that position.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply which, however, suggests that the Government may be disturbingly complacent about the fact that Sharia law is incompatible with the values and law of this country, as it denies not only equality before the law between men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim, but also freedom of religion. So, first, will the noble Lord give your Lordships a clear assurance that Sharia law will never be allowed to take precedence over British law? Secondly, and for instance, will Her Majesty’s Government take steps to ensure that resident Muslim men will no longer be allowed to commit bigamy by bringing in their second, third and fourth wives and all their children to enjoy the benefits of our welfare state?

My Lords, I shall repeat myself: Sharia law has no jurisdiction in England and Wales. We do not intend to change that position. Regardless of religious belief, we are all equal before the law. We cannot prevent individuals seeking to regulate their lives through religious beliefs or cultural tradition. Communities and other groups have the option to use religious councils or any other system of alternative dispute resolution and agree to abide by their decisions. Nothing in the law in England and Wales prevents people abiding by Sharia principles if they wish, provided that their actions do not conflict with the law in England and Wales. If they do, the law in England and Wales prevails.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that Shaykh Siddiqi, the chairman of the governing council of the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, tells us that six cases of domestic violence have been dealt with by it resulting in anger management classes being ordered against men, but with the women then dropping their complaints to the police and the police investigations ceasing? Does the Minister agree that that is highly undesirable, and that women should be properly advised on their rights when they come before these tribunals?

My Lords, my understanding was that the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, which works only under the Arbitration Act 1996, did not deal with matters involving crime or family law. Sharia councils can deal with matters under family law, but of course either party can get consent from the family courts in this country. That consent will not easily be given to any arrangement that is not satisfactory. The noble Lord will also know what huge advances have been made by the courts in terms of domestic violence and the practice direction that the president put out in 2008.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Sharia family courts and councils were introduced into Canada at the request of local Muslim community leaders, but were subsequently withdrawn and proscribed when women were allowed proper consultation? Many of those women argued that they had gone to Canada precisely to flee Sharia provisions. Will there be opportunity for similar adequate and comprehensive consultation with all women on the issue in this country?

My Lords, we very much intend that that should be the position. The most practical and effective way of ensuring that the vulnerable are protected is to encourage the registration of mosques and imams for the purpose of carrying out marriages that comply with and will be recognised under the Marriage Act. We are working to achieve that and to raise awareness, particularly among Muslim women, of the formalities required for a legally recognised marriage in England and Wales. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for sending me helpful material before that question was asked.

My Lords, the Minister sets out the legal position very well, and I am sure that we all absolutely support him in that. However, does he recollect that, a few years ago in the East End of London, there was a system of arbitration of disputes run by the Kray brothers? Is he not aware that extreme pressure is put on vulnerable women to go through a form of arbitration that results in them being virtually precluded from access to British law? That is a difficult matter, I know, but how does he think that we can help those who are put in that position?

My Lords, the noble Lord sets out a problem that undoubtedly exists, but any decision made by anybody that is outside English law cannot stand against English law. For example, if consent is sought for some issue around children or family assets, the English courts decide. Other councils—not courts—can make an agreement, if the parties themselves want to. That applies across the board, but always behind that is the fact that those agreements cannot be enforced except by an English court.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm whether the Government, and specifically their officials connected with the area, are appropriately aware of the distinction between Sharia and Sharia law? Are Muslim arbitration tribunals engaged in the adjudication of dispute resolution in the spirit of Sharia, or in the implementation of Sharia law as an alternative to English law?

My Lords, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal may apply Sharia law only, and I emphasise only, if the disputing parties expressly agree in all arbitrations that decisions will be enforceable by the English and Welsh courts and the requirements of the Arbitration Act 1996 are satisfied. If any decisions by these tribunals were illegal or contrary to public policy under the law in England and Wales, they would simply not be enforceable. As I understand it, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal deals largely with civil matters between two parties who agree that the decision of the arbitration tribunal will stand. If one of the parties then breaks the agreement, the course would be to go to the English courts to make sure that the matter is put right.