|Message ||A new report by One Law for All has found Sharia Councils and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals to be in violation of UK law, public policy and human rights.
Based on an 8 March 2010 Seminar on Sharia Law, research, interviews, and One Law for All case files, the report has identified a number of problem areas:
* Sharia law's civil code is arbitrary and discriminatory against women and children in particular. With the rise in the acceptance of Sharia courts, discrimination is being further institutionalised with some UK law firms additionally offering clients advice on Sharia law and the use of collaborative law.
* Sharia law is practiced in Britain primarily by Sharia Councils and Muslims Arbitration Tribunals. Both operate on religious principles and are harmful to women although Muslim Arbitration Tribunals are wrongly regarded as being of more concern because they operate as tribunals under the Arbitration Act 1996, making their rulings binding in law.
* Sharia Councils, on the other hand, claim to mediate on family issues but in practice often this differs little from arbitration: they frequently ask those appearing before them to sign an agreement to abide by their decisions; they call themselves courts, and the presiding imams, judges. Their decisions are then imposed and regarded as having the weight of legal judgements.
* There is neither control over the appointment of judges in Sharia Councils or Tribunals nor an independent mechanism for monitoring them. Clients often do not have access to legal advice and representation. The proceedings are not recorded, nor are there any searchable legal judgements, nor any real right of appeal.
* Sharia law cannot be compared to secular legal systems because it is considered sacred law that cannot be challenged. There is no scope to look at the interests of the individuals involved, as required by UK family law.
* These legal processes ignore both common law and due process, far less Human Rights, and provide little protection and safety for women in violent situations.
* There is a general assumption that those who attend Sharia courts do so voluntarily and that unfair decisions can be challenged in a British court. Many of the principles of Sharia law are contrary to British law and public policy, and would in theory therefore be unlikely to be upheld in a British court. In reality, however, women are often pressured by their families into going to these courts and adhering to unfair decisions, and may lack knowledge of English and their rights under British law. Moreover, refusal to settle a dispute in a Sharia court can give rise to threats and intimidation, or at best being ostracised.
According to Maryam Namazie, spokesperson of the One Law for All Campaign and an author of the report, The existence of a parallel legal system that is denying a large section of the British population their fundamental human rights is scandalous. Our findings show that it is essential to abolish all religious courts in the UK. Their very existence and legitimisation puts pressure on vulnerable women not to assert their civil rights in a British court. As long as Sharia Councils and Tribunals are allowed to continue to make rulings on issues of family law, women will be pressured into accepting decisions which are prejudicial to them and their children.
The report recommends that Sharia courts be closed on the grounds that they work against rather than for equality, and are incompatible with human rights. Recommendations include:
1. initiating a Human Rights challenge to Muslim Arbitration Tribunals and/or Sharia Councils
2. amending the Arbitration Act under which the Muslim Arbitration Tribunals operate in a similar way to which the Canadian equivalent of the Arbitration Act was amended in 2005 to exclude religious arbitration
3. launching a major and nationwide helpline and information campaign to inform people of their rights under British law
4. proposing legislation under the EU Citizens Rights Initiative to address the issue EU-wide
5. strengthening secularism and the separation of religion from the state, the judicial system and education, in order to more fully protect citizenship rights