UK Bill to Amend 1996 Arbitration Act

From the Guardian:

Islamic courts would be forced to acknowledge the primacy of English law under a bill being introduced in the House of Lords.

The bill, proposed by Lady Cox and backed by women’s rights groups and the National Secular Society, was drawn up because of “deep concerns” that Muslim women are suffering discrimination within closed sharia law councils.

The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill will introduce an offence carrying a five-year jail sentence for anyone falsely claiming or implying that sharia courts or councils have legal jurisdiction over family or criminal law. The bill, which will apply to all arbitration tribunals if passed, aims to tackle discrimination, which its supporters say is inherent in the courts, by banning the sharia practice of giving woman’s testimony only half the weight of men’s.

The 1996 Arbitration Act allows for private arbitration or private  third-party arrangements in civil disputes; as has been widely reported, a number of Muslim groups have taken advantage of this provision to establish private shariah courts, leading to reports of inheritances doled out unequally between male and female relatives, and of women “persuaded” to drop complaints to the police about domestic violence. The obvious – and reasonable – fear is that some women are agreeing to be bound by the courts’ decisions as a result of community and family pressure rather than giving true consent. I noted this here, and suggested that the 1996 act ought to be amended so that civil courts will not enforce decisions where there is evidence of gender bias.

Given that there is a genuine problem, the bill’s approach could provide a useful contrast to the posturing and pointless “anti-Shariah” bills that are being proposed in various US states. Cox’s bill can be seen here; it includes the following:

…After section 6 (definition of arbitration agreement) insert—

“6A Discriminatory terms of arbitration

No part of an arbitration agreement or process shall expressly or implicitly provide—
(a) that the evidence of a man is worth more than the evidence of a woman, or vice versa,
(b) that the division of an estate between male and female children on intestacy must be unequal,
(c) that women should have fewer property rights than men, or vice versa, or
(d) for any other term that constitutes discrimination on the grounds of sex.

It should be noted that the bill – correctly, in my opinion – deals in general principles; it does not anywhere mention Islam or shariah. This is in contrast to a website set up by Cox’s supporters promote the bill, which seems designed to alienate Muslims: the site’s banner headline features a woman in a niqab, and it is concerned exclusively with shariah. The site was created by David Clark of the British Christian Right lobby-group Christian Concern; Christian Concern’s own website has a triumphant report on the subject:

New Bill to Stop Shariah Law Operating in the UK

On 7 June 2011 Baroness Cox introduced a new Bill in the House of Lords intended to outlaw the use of Sharia law where it conflicts with English law…

“Through these proposals, I want to make it perfectly clear in the law that discrimination against women shall not be allowed within arbitration. I am deeply concerned about the treatment of Muslim women by Sharia Courts. We must do all that we can to make sure they are free from any coercion, intimidation or unfairness. Many women say, ‘we came to this country to escape these practices only to find the situation is worse here’.”

The headline is obviously misleading; one wonders whether it is deliberately so.

6 Responses

  1. SO!!!!, Cox is a feminist?

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  4. […] the UK (which do not in fact “stand alongside” British courts) is a subject I looked at here; the spectre of “no-go zones” in the UK was raised by the then-Bishop of […]

  5. According to UK law one may will all their assets to their eldest son…or to their pet cat, so what’s all this bull about unequal doling out of inheritance between male and female relative?

  6. […] allows for private arbitration or private  third-party arrangements in civil disputes; Cox has proposed an amendment which would make it clear that “any matter which is within the jurisdiction of the criminal […]

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