Peers in the House of Lords have warned that the Government is “disturbingly complacent” about the operation of Islamic Sharia law in the UK.
They were not convinced by the Government’s assurance that application of Sharia law by the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal remains subject to English law.
During House of Lords questions yesterday, Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked the Government “whether they support the implementation of Sharia Law in the United Kingdom”.
In response, justice minister Lord Bach said: “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”.
Lord Pearson said this reply suggested that the Government “may be disturbingly complacent about the fact that Sharia law is incompatible with the values and law of this country”.
He asked the Government for “a clear assurance that Sharia law will never be allowed to take precedence over British law”.
Lord Bach responded: “Sharia law has no jurisdiction in England and Wales. We do not intend to change that position.”
However, he added: “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.”
Other Peers were quick to point out that Sharia law, applied by councils operating within Muslim communities, was unlikely to be compatible with British legal principles, such as equality of men and women before the law.
Lord Thomas of Gresford mentioned examples of domestic violence cases dealt with by the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal which resulted in men attending anger management classes with women dropping their complaints to the police and criminal investigations ceasing.
Commenting on the pressure Muslim women face to submit to this system of arbitration, Lord Tebbit asked if the Minister could recollect: “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?” he added.
Lord Bach admitted that this problem “undoubtedly exists”, but insisted once more that “any decision made by anybody that is outside English law cannot stand against English law”.
Muslim leaders were quick to challenge the Peers’ assessment of Sharia courts.
The Muslim Council of Britain was particularly scathing of Lord Tebbit’s comments, branding them “baseless and ignorant”.
Five Islamic courts are thought to be operating in Britain under the 1996 Arbitration Act. They are permitted to rule on business, financial and family disputes.
Their decisions are rubber stamped by British courts.
Orthodox Jewish Beth Din courts also operate this way, but lawyers and civil rights campaigners have always been sceptical of the status of women in Sharia disputes.
Last year 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.”