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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 February 2008, 16:36 GMT
Religious courts already in use
By Nick Tarry
BBC News

Orthodox Jews in London
Orthodox Jews often settle civil matters at a religious Beth Din

The Archbishop of Canterbury has caused a furore with his comment that it "seems unavoidable" that parts of Islamic Sharia law will be adopted in the UK.

For many non-Muslims, the idea of a religious court holding power over British citizens seems totally alien to our mainly-secular culture.

But not to all non-Muslims. It has often been remarked on how similar Muslims and Jews are in many of their traditions, such as food laws, burial rites and language, and this case could prove no exception. Jewish courts are in daily use in Britain, and have been for centuries.

We can't drag people in off the streets
David Frei
Registrar, The London Beth Din

British Jews, particularly the orthodox, will frequently turn to their own religious courts, the Beth Din, to resolve civil disputes, covering issues as diverse as business and divorce.

"There's no compulsion", the registrar of the London Beth Din, David Frei, said. "We can't drag people in off the streets."

Both sides in a dispute must be Jewish, obviously, and must have agreed to have their case heard by the Beth Din. Once that has happened, its eventual decision is binding. English law states that any third party can be agreed by two sides to arbitrate in a dispute, and in this case the institutional third party is the Beth Din.

The Beth Din also takes care of a multitude of Jewish community affairs, many of which never give rise to any dispute: the dates of the Sabbath, kosher certification of caterers and bakers, medical ethics for Jewish patients and religious conversions. But it is in the areas of divorce and litigation that the Beth Din acts as a court in the western sense.

The Beth Din hears only civil disputes
The court can only act if both sides agree
Both parties to the dispute must be Jewish

Divorce, in Jewish law, takes place when a document called a Get, written out by a scribe in Aramaic and ancient Hebrew, is handed by the husband to the wife. It is not legal the other way round, but that does not mean that men have it all their own way.

Both sides must agree, and the wife has to accept the document if she wishes the divorce to proceed. This need not always be in person, and a court official can stand in for the husband as a legal proxy in particularly fraught cases.

Jewish litigation is more varied, but a typical dispute might relate to a partnership, a Jewish school, a Jewish charity or a transaction between two businessmen.

A Jewish Menorah candlestick
Jewish courts exist alongside the English legal system

The court can hear cases concerning quite large companies, but they must always be privately owned, in that both parties must be Jewish in order to accept the authority of the Beth Din.

The service provided by the Beth Din is best described as binding civil arbitration, and they do not seek to replace the state's civil courts.

"If one side does not accept the authority of the Beth Din, concerning divorce or any dispute, we cannot act", David Frei clarifies.

"And in the case of divorce, the parties must still obtain a civil divorce alongside the religious one."

All criminal matters are reserved for the UK's state courts, and there is no appetite for change.


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