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Sharia rulings 'can go to courts'

25 October 08 15:13 GMT

Decisions made under Islamic sharia law can be accepted by English and Welsh family courts, a minister has confirmed.

Sharia, a set of principles governing the way many Muslims believe they should live, is not legally binding.

But rulings passed on separating couples by a sharia council can be "rubber stamped" by the courts, said justice minister Bridget Prentice.

Conservatives argue that parallel legal systems have "no place" in the country.

Critics fear women could be disadvantaged by sharia processes, which they say traditionally favour men.

Ms Prentice clarified the situation in a written answer to MPs, stressing that English family law would still apply.

She said parties in a dispute dealing with money or children could draft a consent order embodying the terms of the sharia judgement for submission to a formal court.

"This allows English judges to scrutinise it to ensure that it complies with English legal tenets," said Ms Prentice.

The court can approve the order - creating a legal contract - if it decides the agreement is fair.

However, if it is unhappy with the consent order, the court may ask for more information or for the couple to attend a hearing.

Shadow justice secretary Nick Herbert said: "There can be no place for parallel legal systems in our country.

"It is right that agreements decided privately in family cases must be authorised by a judge applying English law if they are to have any legal effect.

"It is vital that in matrimonial disputes where a sharia council is involved, women's rights are protected and judgments are non-binding."

Controversy over sharia law flared in February when the Archbishop of Canterbury claimed the adoption of some aspects of Islamic sharia law in the UK seemed "unavoidable".

'No jurisdiction'

Dr Rowan Williams suggested that sharia could play a role in "aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorised structures of mediation and conflict resolution".

Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips, the most senior judge in England and Wales, later said there was no reason sharia law's principles could not be used in mediation.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said: "Sharia law has no jurisdiction in England and Wales and the government has no intention to change this position."

Communities had the option to use religious courts, although their decisions were subject to national law and there may be "incompatibilities" between English and religious law, she said.

"Any member of any community should know that they have the right to refer to an English 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," the spokeswoman added.

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