Islamic Sharia courts have been cleared by the Government to deal with family disputes, with critics warning that Muslim women will be treated like second-class citizens.
The ‘endorsement’ of Sharia family courts was announced in Parliament last week by Bridget Prentice, a junior justice minister, in answer to an MP’s question.
Before now, Islamic courts have been allowed to resolve business and financial disputes under a system of voluntary arbitration which is permitted under English law.
Five such Islamic courts are thought to currently operate in this way.
But critics say that allowing Muslim courts to rule on family and divorce matters is more controversial because it raises problems over the status of women.
Lawyers and civil rights campaigners fear that Sharia courts will place more weight on men’s testimony to the disadvantage of women.
Critics also voiced concern about the creeping development of an Islamic legal system running parallel to British law.
But the Government dismissed those concerns, saying that Sharia rulings on family disputes will have no legal force unless they have been rubber-stamped by an English family court.
Bridget Prentice said: “If, in a family dispute dealing with money or children, the parties to a judgment in Sharia council wish to have this recognised by English authorities, they are at liberty to draft a consent order embodying the terms of the agreement and submit it to an English court.
“This allows English judges to scrutinise it to ensure that it complies with English legal tenets.”
But Nick Herbert, the shadow justice secretary, said: “There can be no place for parallel legal systems in our country.
“It is vital that in matrimonial disputes where a Sharia council is involved, women’s rights are protected and judgments are non-binding.”
Dr David Green, the Director of the Civitas think tank, said: “I think there are a number of problems with regards to Sharia law. These Sharia councils are supposed to operate under the Arbitration Act which allows citizens in a free society to settle their disputes on a voluntary basis if they so wish.
“But that legislation assumes that both parts are regarded as being equal. I think the problem is with tribunals like these you can’t always be sure that women would be treated equally.”
Joshua Rozenberg, one of Britain’s best-known legal commentators, said: “Under Sharia, a woman is not regarded as equal to a man. There must be a grave risk that women will be treated less favourably by a Sharia council than those claiming maintenance through a secular court.
“Women may also come under pressure from within their own communities to have a one-sided Sharia ruling endorsed by the civil courts. This is all the more important when children are involved, because a mother who receives insufficient maintenance for her child may not be able to bring the child up herself.
“I suspect that some tightening of court procedures is required to ensure that consent orders based on Sharia rulings are always considered personally by a judge of sufficient seniority.”
Writing in The Guardian, legal journalist Marcel Berlins asks, “how can the courts be expected to inquire into every Sharia consent form to ensure that it ‘complies with English legal tenets’?
“Judges will have before them, perhaps on only two pages, the terms of the agreement reached between husband and wife.
“They will not know how it was reached. The document will not tell them whether the woman’s consent was freely given.
“Will the judges start digging into the background of the negotiations, or into a Sharia council’s ruling, to make sure they were not unjustly skewed in favour of the man? They’re not equipped for that.
“So how can they be satisfied that the court order they’ve been asked to make complies with English law, as Prentice asserted would be necessary? The answer is that they can’t.”
The approval of Sharia family courts follows months of controversy over the role of unofficial Islamic courts operating in Britain.
In February the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, provoked a storm when he said the adoption of Sharia law in Britain was “inevitable”. At the time, the Prime Minister’s office criticised his comments.
Then in July England’s most senior judge came under fire for suggesting that parts of Sharia law could have a role to play in the legal system.