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There is a stealthy rise of Sharia courts in Britain says Clive Coleman


There is, in a world of uncertainties, at least one comforting and incontrovertible truth. There’s one law for all. isn’t there? Well, no there isn’t. In this country some minority and religious groups have their own courts dispensing justice in commercial cases, neighbour disputes and divorce.


This week there has been a furious debate about whether these courts complement the national law or threaten it. The debate has been stoked by the revelation that in southeast London there is an unofficial Somali court that deals with criminal matters.


Previously, tribunals such as the Jewish Beth Din have worked as courts of arbitration in civil matters. Though devout Jews regard it as a religious obligation to settle disputes at the Beth Din, it remains a voluntary jurisdiction and no one can be compelled to have their case heard there. English law accepts that people are entitled to devise their own arbitration tribunal administered by an agreed third party. The parties can agree the law under which their dispute is to be settled, including religious law. The judgment of the arbitrator is binding under domestic law, unless manifestly unreasonable.


The work of such courts has gone largely unnoticed and to the extent that it has been apparent, it is seen as an acceptable aspect of multiculturalism. Crime, however, is a different matter. One of the most serious cases to come before the Somali court involved the “trial” of a group of youths accused of stabbing a fellow Somali. Witnesses and families were brought together for a hearing in which the men admitted their guilt and their fathers and uncles agreed compensation for the victim.


The notion of a parallel criminal justice system for minority communities causes understandable concern. Why should one person receive a criminal conviction, perhaps a prison sentence, for committing a crime while another can pay compensation and avoid a criminal record? The Somali court is not a Sharia court; it operates according to traditional cultural principles. However, in the highly febrile current climate it is the role of Sharia in the debate about parallel courts and multiculturalism that has inflamed opinion.


In February an ICM survey of 500 British Muslims found 40 per cent in support of the introduction of Sharia in predominantly Muslim areas of Britain. Although the Muslim Council of Britain opposes the idea, there is already a network of Sharia councils in the UK. They are not constituted as traditional courts, but are seen as essential by Muslims seeking advice and religious sanction in matters such as divorce. Many Sharia councils already follow the Jewish model and have turned themselves into recognised courts of arbitration.


On this week’s Law in Action on Radio 4 Faizul Aqtab Siddiqi, a barrister and principal of Hijaz College Islamic University in Warwickshire, not only predicted a formal network of Muslim courts within a decade but imagined such courts dealing with crime: “I was speaking to a police officer who said we no longer have the bobby on the beat who will give somebody a slap on the wrist. So I think there is a case to be made under which the elders sit together and reprimand people, trying to get them to change.”


The thought of community policing by Sharia council was enough to send some elements of the press into hysteria, talking of secret Islamic courts operating in Britain and a law that allows beheadings, stonings and amputations. That response skews any serious debate. What is needed is a cool analysis of the effect that minority and religious courts might have on the rule of law and society.


We allow organisations such as schools to administer their own justice. Schools often deal with an assault by one pupil upon another, clearly a criminal act, without involving the police. We are largely content to let them do so, perhaps because they are tacitly licensed in that behaviour by the State.


But would minority courts be doing anything very different? Or would religious or cultural pressure, together with the rights and remedies espoused by minorities and religious groups, lead to an irrevocable fracturing of the justice system? Should these courts be restricted to civil matters, or is there a need to break down cultural barriers, which means that they should not even stray into that territory? In 1988 Malaysia amended its constitution to allow Sharia courts to stand on a par with civil courts. The dual system has led to conflict, especially in matters of divorce and custody. Any system of legal pluralism has to determine whether minority courts are equal in status to state courts, or ultimately subject to them.


Post-7/7 Britain was famously described as sleepwalking its way to segregation. And indeed it seems that multiculturalism may be going out of style among Britain’s politicians. However, the development of minority and religious courts could represent one of the most profound shifts towards multiculturalism so far. It is a change happening by stealth. But what makes it all the more paradoxical is that the mainstream legal system has sanctioned the creation of minority and religious courts and enforced their judgments.


The author is a barrister and presenter of Law In Action on Radio 4



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They should be allowed a court, but not a criminal one.  Should be answerable to state law, first and foremost, the rest is just windrow dressing for communities striving to be different.




Civil law is fine to a certain extent, so long as all parties agree and are no coerced into doing so, but under no circumstances should a religious, or any other form of court, outside of the normal legal-system, be allowed anywhere near criminal cases.

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When will we learn in this country. Abide by our laws or f*%k off. Simple as that.


We are too soft and too tolerant.


Does that include all the red-neck vigilantes, who want to go around stringing-up paedos and suchlike?

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