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One Law for All Suggests Recommendations on Challenging Sharia Courts

The One Law for All “No Sharia Campaign” has produced a report, entitled Sharia Law in Britain: A Threat to One Law for All & Equal Rights. I gave my general views on the campaign in November here; this report suffers from the same limitations which I identified then. Most of it is simply polemic, drawing unsystematically on a variety of news reports and statements on Muslims websites: we read of Islamic penalties doled out in places such as Iran; inequitable decisions and unenlightened attititudes emanating from sharia judges in the UK; and instances of individuals submitting to “voluntary” shariah decisions either as the result of bullying or without informed consent. There is no attempt to quantify or differentiate; for example, we’re told that “A Sharia court in Britain has even issued a death sentence against a writer in 1999”; although the authors give a reference to a newspaper report, they don’t mention that this was a stunt by the now-banned Al-Muhajiroun.

However, despite these problems the last two pages of the report includes some useful specific recommendations about what should be done to ensure that everyone has equal access to justice:

1) We recommend that a Human Rights case be initiated to challenge Muslim Arbitration Tribunals and/or Sharia Councils.

Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 prohibits public authorities from acting in any manner contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Section 6(3) defines what is meant by a “public authority” and this expressly includes courts and tribunals, but the extent to which Sharia Councils and MATs are so classified has not yet been tested in court.

Article 6(1) of the ECHR states that everyone is: “entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal.” As has been amply demonstrated in this report, Sharia Councils and MATs are not impartial, as they discriminate against women in particular, and are unfair for the same reason. As a result of case law, the definition of “public bodies” also includes charities and semi-charitable organisations because of the effect their services have on the general public, therefore we aim to establish that Sharia Councils are also bound by the Human Rights Act even though they are not officially labelled as tribunals.

The Human Rights Act describes an eligible claimant under the Act as a person who “is (or would be) a victim of the unlawful act.” Therefore, to challenge Sharia Councils or MATs, a claimant needs to be found who is suffering or might suffer because of the decisions of these bodies, and who is willing to proceed on the aforementioned grounds.

2) We recommend an amendment to the Arbitration Act under which the Muslim Arbitration Tribunals operate in a similar way to which the Canadian Arbitration Act was amended, to exclude religious arbitration.

In 2006, the Canadian Arbitration Act was amended to state that family arbitration which was not conducted exclusively in accordance with Canadian secular law did not constitute family arbitration, and would not have any legal effect. This was applicable both to Sharia courts and also the Jewish Beth Din equivalent. It is our recommendation that the same be done in the United Kingdom. The wording of the amendment to the Act we propose would specifically prohibit arbitration tribunals from hearing family law cases and exclude all religious tribunals from the Arbitration Act…

3) Because of the many difficulties related to people lacking awareness of their rights in the UK and being unduly in the thrall of family or community pressure, we recommend launching a major and nationwide helpline and information campaign to inform people of their rights under British law. The campaign should be conducted in partnership with women’s groups and with family law organisations.

4) It is also possible under the EU Citizens Rights Initiative to propose legislation that would apply across the European Union. Given that Sharia law is a concern in a number of EU states, we recommend this course of action as a means of addressing the issue EU-wide.

5) Additionally, we recommend the strengthening of secularism and the separation of religion from the state, the judicial system and education in order to more fully protect citizenship rights.

This seems to me to be a measured and sensible approach; it shows confidence in the strength of our legal traditions to meet the challenge, in contrast to authoritarian calls for suppression. However, as regards the 1996 Arbitration Act I would prefer an amendment simply affirming that civil courts will not enforce or recognise decisions where there is evidence of gender bias; this would be a better expression of secular principles, as singling out a religious motivation is simply an inversion of giving religion special treatment.

Of course the abuses and retrograde attitudes highlighted by the report should be called out and challenged, although, as I’ve written before, it would be unhelpful if “sharia” were to become simply a synonym for “legally-sanctioned religious oppression”, the way “fatwa” has come to be understood as meaning “death sentence”. In the US, unremarkable niche financial products for Muslim customers who wish to arrange their finances in accordance with sharia principles have provoked ridiculous howls of outrage, and there is an effort underway to paint any Muslim who does not repudiate his or her religion’s legal traditions in toto as being an extremist (see here and here).

(H/T: Edmund Standing)