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Independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales published

Home Office to consider report’s findings

The independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales has been published.

The review's terms of reference focused on "whether sharia law is being misused or applied in a way that is incompatible with the domestic law in England and Wales, and in particular whether there were discriminatory practices against women who use sharia councils."

The review, chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui, a specialist in Islamic and inter-religious studies had an expert panel including Sam Momtaz QC of 1 Garden Court Family Chambers, retired High Court judge of the Family Division, Sir Mark Hedley DL and specialist family law solicitor Anne-Marie Hutchinson OBE, QC (Hon), partner at Dawson Cornwell Solicitors. Qari Muhammad Asim MBE, a senior Imam at Leeds' Makkah mosque and a senior lawyer at law firm, DLA Piper, and Imam Razawi, a theologian and Director General of the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society, were advisers to the panel.

The review received written and oral evidence from a variety of sources including evidence from the public call for evidence, oral evidence sessions with users of sharia councils, women's rights' groups, academics. Lawyers and other interested parties.

Key Recommendations:
1. Changes to Legislation: Amendments to the Marriage Act 1949 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 "to ensure that civil marriages are conducted before or at the same time as the Islamic marriage ceremony, bringing Islamic marriage in line with Christian and Jewish marriage in the eyes of the law."

2. Awareness campaigns – the panel's opinion being "that the evidence shows that cultural change is required within Muslim communities so that communities acknowledge women's rights in civil law, especially in areas of marriage and divorce. Awareness campaigns, educational programmes and other similar measures should be put in place to educate and inform women of their rights and responsibilities, including the need to highlight the legal protection civilly registered marriages provide. The panel considered that there is "…. the need to ensure that sharia councils operate within the law and comply with best practice, non-discriminatory processes and existing regulatory structures. In particular, a clear message must be sent that an arbitration that applies sharia law in respect of financial remedies and/or child arrangements would fall foul of the Arbitration Act and its underlying protection."  The panel also identified a need to increase public awareness in communities about availability of legal aid.

3. Regulation – whilst the first two recommendations would result in a gradual reduction in the use and need of sharia councils, in the meantime the report recommends by majority (one member was not in agreement) that a body be created that "would set up the process for councils to regulate themselves." and that body would "design a code of practice for sharia councils to accept and implement." The report indicates that, "in speaking with the sharia councils, none were opposed to some form of regulation and some positively welcomed it." However, Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, responding to the report in the House of Commons, adopted the dissenting view expressed by Anne-Marie Hutchinson and said: 

"Sharia law has no jurisdiction in the UK and we would not facilitate or endorse regulation, which could present councils as an alternative to UK laws" and added: "The Government considers that the proposal to create a State-facilitated or endorsed regulation scheme for Sharia councils would confer upon them legitimacy as alternative forms of dispute resolution. The Government does not consider there to be a role for the State to act in this way. Britain has a long tradition of freedom of worship and religious tolerance and regulation could add legitimacy to the perception of the existence of a parallel legal system even though the outcomes of Sharia Councils have no standing in civil law, as the independent review has made clear."

For the Government's response, click here

For the full text of the Independent Review, click here.

For an article by Harriet Sherwood, Religion Correspondent for the Guardian, click here.

For an article by Harriet Agerholm in The Independent, click here.

3/2/18 (supplemented 4/2/18)