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‘Religious courts’

Humanists believe in a secular legal system, where the law applies equality to all people, regardless of religion or belief, and laws are made on the basis of reason, empathy, and evidence and not upon religious or doctrinal considerations.

Therefore, we oppose any attempt to incorporate non-statutory ‘religious courts’, such Muslim Sharia councils, Jewish beth din or Roman Catholic ecclesiastical authorities, into UK law. Individuals are free to govern their lives in accordance with their religious beliefs or cultural traditions and, therefore, may seek advice from these ‘courts’. However, these religious institutions should have a duty to be clear that their recommendations are not part of the national law and cannot be enforced through the national courts, except in the limited circumstances defined by the Arbitration Act 1996. Any ‘religious court’ that fails to make it clear to individuals that they lack legal status or advise on other forms of legal redress should be outlawed.

In depth

The Church of England’s ecclesiastical courts are the only religious courts that operate within the English legal framework. Each diocese of the Church of England has a court presided over by a judge appointed by the bishop. These courts date back to the eleventh century and traditionally had jurisdiction over defamation, probate, and matrimonial causes as well as over both clergy and laity in relation to matters relating to church discipline and to morality more generally. However, these powers were significantly scaled back in the nineteenth century to cover just church property and criminal conduct in relation to the clergy.

However, there are two areas where they enjoy a measure of power over those who are not members of the Church of England, namely the power of consistory courts with regards to listed buildings owned by the Church, and the power of the Court of Faculties over the admission to and regulation of notaries public.  Although it is rare for these courts to rule on matters that are external to the Church, they were put on a statutory footing by the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963.

Other ‘religious courts’, most notably Sharia councils and Jewish beth din, do not have any status in UK law. Any judgment they pass is not binding upon the individuals involved and does not override rulings made by national courts. These ‘courts’ often interpret the ‘law’ in term of their religious doctrine, including affording an inferior status to women. There is substantial evidence that women are not treated equally in these ‘courts’ and that spousal or family cohesion is permitted to influence judgments, particularly in relation to claims of domestic violence and inheritance. There have been reported instances of vulnerable women from religious communities being led to believe that ‘religious courts’ have legal standing when granting child custody following the breakdown of a marriage. We support the work of women’s organisations highlighting and working on these issues.

Although we do not support these ‘courts’ and would oppose any move to give them statutory powers, we do support freedom of association. We call upon the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to monitor the impact on women using these alternative religious systems and for the Government to back an education outreach programme to make clear that these ‘courts’ have no legal standing.

What we’re doing

Humanists UK has worked for a number of years with ethnic minority women’s groups, lawyers, and others working directly with women who use Sharia councils in order to develop our own thinking and policy on these issues. We have also spoken publicly on the issue of Sharia law and women’s rights in a number of fora.

In 2018, an independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales recommended changes to offer greater protection for Muslim women in family law and divorce, including the creation of an official regulatory body for ‘sharia courts’. This recommendation was rejected by the Government because it risked giving legitimacy to quasi-legal institutions that do not currently have any legal standing in UK law.

In 2014, we successfully lobbied the Law Society to withdraw its guidance note on Sharia-compliant wills. Although we respect the right of individuals to make provisions in their wills how they wish, the Law Society was wrong in publishing a document giving preference to one conservative, narrow, and exclusive interpretation of Islam.

In 2011, we supported the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill proposed by Baroness Cox as a private member’s bill in the House of Lords. The bill aimed to make it a criminal offence to falsely claim that a Sharia ‘court’ has a legal jurisdiction over family and criminal law. Perpetrators would face a prison sentence of up to five years. Baroness Cox reintroduced this bill in the 2015-2016 parliamentary session (where it progressed to its first reading in the House of Commons) and in the 2016-2017 parliamentary session.

In 2008, we wrote an open letter to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, challenging claims that the introduction of Sharia law in the UK was ‘inevitable’.

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