Page last updated at 17:44 GMT, Thursday, 10 December 2009

Sharia law tribunal is proposed

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The Muslim community has mixed views about the proposals

Wales could get its first court based on Islamic law under proposals from a Muslim body, BBC Wales has learned.

A Sharia law tribunal in Cardiff will help community relations and give some Muslims services they want, supporters have told the Dragon's Eye programme.

But the Ministry of Justice said that Sharia law "has no jurisdiction in England and Wales".

A spokesperson said: "Regardless of religious belief we are all equal before the law".

What we are trying to do is help the third or fourth generation British Muslims who are growing up to give them the services necessary to make Britain their homeland, rather than saying we actually want to ghettoise ourselves
Shaykh Siddiqi, Muslim Arbitration Tribunal

Some commentators, such as the think-tank Civitas, say a Muslim arbitration tribunal undermines the concept of one law for UK citizens.

A women's group said it was not needed and women may not be treated fairly.

A tribunal has been proposed for the middle of next year, and its backers say it will bring the law and Muslim faith together.

There are already seven such tribunals in England when two parties facing marital, financial and other disputes come before experts in Islamic and UK law.

Both parties must agree to allow the tribunal to sit in judgement.

Shaykh Siddiqi, of the tribunal, said: "What we are trying to do is help the third or fourth generation British Muslims who are growing up to give them the services necessary to make Britain their homeland, rather than saying we actually want to ghettoise ourselves."

Nothing in the law of England and Wales prevents people abiding by Sharia principles if they wish, provided their actions do not conflict with English and Welsh law
Ministry of Justice

The Ministry of Justice said: "Communities have the option to use religious councils and to agree to abide by their decisions. These decisions are subject to national law and cannot be enforced through the national courts, save in limited circumstances."

"There may be incompatibilities between English and religious laws and the parties should always have the option to refer to the English or Welsh family courts should they wish to do.

"Any member of any community should know that they have the right to refer to an English or Welsh court at any point, particularly in the event that they feel pressured or coerced to resolve an issue in a way with which they feel uncomfortable.

'Shoved to one side'

"We are proud of our diverse society and are committed to ensuring cohesive communities. Nothing in the law of England and Wales prevents people abiding by Sharia principles if they wish, provided their actions do not conflict with English and Welsh law."

The ministry said these tribunals were not courts, but instead "a form of "alternative dispute resolution," and communities had "the option to use religious councils and to agree to abide by their decisions".

A recent report by Civitas was critical of Sharia courts, saying they were not in keeping with UK legal principles.

Denis MacEoin, of Civitas, said: "It is Sharia law that is given the prominent position and this effectively means that British law is shoved to one side.

"All citizens have the right to be judged under a single legal system, and that we didn't bring in the legal system by the back door and that is effectively what is happening at the moment."

Some fear that Muslim women may become isolated from their communities if they do not choose the tribunal system.

Marya Shabir, of the Welsh Women's National Coalition, said: "It's being advertised as this opt-in system when it actually isn't.

"If a Muslim woman is given the option of using a Muslim Arbitration Tribunal over going through the courts system using the law of England and Wales; there's no question as to which system she's going to use.

"If she doesn't go with the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, she is going to face stigmatisation, she will be ostracised by her community, her peers, her family who believe she is turning her back on the community."

Dragon's Eye is broadcast at 2235 GMT on Thursday on BBC One Wales.



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