A new Bill has been introduced in the House of Lords by Baroness Cox, which reportedly will introduce an offence carrying a five-year jail sentence for anyone falsely claiming that Sharia courts or councils have legal jurisdiction over family or criminal law. The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill is a Private Members’ Bill.
In recent years, the BHA has worked with others including ethnic minority women’s groups, lawyers and those working directly with women who use Sharia councils, in order to develop our own thinking and policy on these difficult issues. We have also spoken publicly on the issue of Sharia law and women’s rights in a number of forums.
In response to the BHA’s representations, the previous government was explicit that English courts do not recognise the judgments of Sharia councils as legally binding judgements. In other words, the ‘rulings’ of religious bodies – whether Sharia councils, the Jewish Beth Din, Roman Catholic ecclesiastical authorities or any other private establishment making pronouncements on religious rules – have no enforceability in English law. When meeting the present Justice minister Lord McNally, we clarified that this was the case.
However, the BHA is aware that under civil law and specifically the Arbitration Act, there are some circumstances where decisions will be made in religious councils which – if they are not illegal under English law – could be binding, just as the decision by any other private individual acting as ‘arbitrator’ under the Arbitration Act might be. This is greatly concerning.
In addition the Crown Prosecution Service may on occasion have referred cases to Sharia councils. The BHA believes those kinds of actions, or any de facto recognition of religious law and religious judges or tribunals by English authorities, are totally unacceptable.
BHA Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips commented, ‘Many religious “laws” are inherently gender unequal, and as such are antithetical to the principles of democracy and the rule of law which we uphold in a liberal democracy. We welcome any clarification that religious laws, judges and tribunals should have no de facto or legal recognition in English law and have no standing in our domestic courts, as this new Bill may seek to do. Just as important is that government and others should undertake serious and wide-ranging work to ensure that women and men from every part of society, right from school age, understand their civil rights as citizens.’
For further comment or information contact Naomi Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7079 3585.
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of ethically concerned, non-religious people in the UK. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief, and for a secular state.