A parliamentary Bill has been tabled in the House of Lords that would stop sharia courts in this country claiming that they have legal jurisdiction over criminal or family law. At meetings launching the Bill to the press and for peers, the Baroness tabling it was joined on platform by Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society who also spoke. This demonstrated the broad base of support for the Bill, which included religious and women’s groups. The One Law for All group was represented and copies of their publication One Law for All was distributed to participants. Both meetings were lively and constructive.
The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, was introduced into the House of Lords by Baroness Caroline Cox (independent). Its intention is to tackle the discrimination suffered by Muslim women within the Sharia court system. The Bill, which applies to all arbitration tribunals, will firmly outlaw the practice of giving women’s testimony half the weight of men’s. The Bill addresses human rights issues and does not mention Islam.
The Bill’s proposals include:
- A new criminal offence of ‘falsely claiming legal jurisdiction’ for any person who adjudicates upon matters which ought to be decided by criminal or family courts. The maximum penalty would be five years in prison.
- Explicitly stating in legislation that sex discrimination law applies directly to arbitration tribunal proceedings. Discriminatory rulings may be struck down under the Bill.
- Requiring public bodies to inform women that they have fewer legal rights if their marriage is unrecognised by English law.
- Explicitly stating on the face of legislation that arbitration tribunals may not deal with matters of family law (such as legally recognised divorce or custody of children) or criminal law (such as domestic violence).
- Making it easier for a civil court to set aside a consent order if a mediation settlement agreement or other agreement was reached under duress.
- Explicitly stating on the face of legislation that a victim of domestic abuse is a witness to an offence and therefore should be expressly protected from witness intimidation.
Lady Cox said: “Equality under the law is a core value of British justice. My Bill seeks to preserve that standard. I have no desire to interfere in the internal theological affairs of religious groups, and my Bill does not do that. My Bill seeks to stop parallel legal, or ‘quasi-legal’, systems taking root in our nation. Cases of criminal law and family law are matters reserved for our English courts alone.
“Through these proposals, I want to make it perfectly clear in the law that discrimination against women shall not be allowed within arbitration. I am deeply concerned about the treatment of Muslim women by Sharia Courts. We must do all that we can to make sure they are free from any coercion, intimidation or unfairness.
“There is considerable evidence that many women are suffering in many ways (such as domestic violence or unequal access to divorce) due to discriminatory practices in our country today and we cannot continue to condone this situation. Many women say, ‘we came to this country to escape these practices only to find the situation is worse here’.”
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “Laws should not impinge on religious freedom, nor should courts judge on theological matters. But by the same token democratically determined and human rights compliant law must always take precedence over the law of any religion. Yet religious law can already be enforced under English law through the Arbitration Act and that is what this Bill is seeking to address.
“Religious arbitration has already been outlawed in two Canadian provinces and under this new Bill the Arbitration Act would not be able to determine family or criminal matters nor agreements that are discriminatory against women. A nation could be defined by those subject to one law. This Bill aims once more to give every citizen equal protection by the same just law – one law for all.”
Anne Marie Waters of the One Law for All campaign commented: “We welcome any Bill that can halt the advancement of sharia courts and religious tribunals in Britain and promote equal rights. It is particularly important that women are informed of their rights under British law, and that domestic violence or other family or criminal law matters are not dealt with by sharia-based bodies – these put women at a grave disadvantage and treat children as the property of their fathers.”