By Matthew HickleyLast updated at 10:10 AM on 15th September 2008
Islamic sharia law courts in Britain are exploiting a little-known legal clause to make their verdicts officially binding under UK law in cases including divorce, financial disputes and even domestic violence.
A new network of courts in five major cities is hearing cases where Muslims involved agree to be bound by traditional sharia law, and under the 1996 Arbitration Act the court's decisions can then be enforced by the county courts or the High Court. Officials behind the new system claim to have dealt with more than 100 cases since last summer, including six involving domestic violence which is a criminal rather than civil offence, and said they hoped to take over growing numbers of 'smaller' criminal cases in future.
The revelations sparked uproar yesterday, with warnings that the fundamental principle of equal treatment for all - the bedrock of British justice - was being gravely undermined. Critics fear Britain's Islamic hard-liners
The issue erupted into a major controversy earlier this year after the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams claimed publicly that formal recognition of sharia law 'seemed unavoidable', and Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips gave his backing to the use of Islamic courts to deal with family, marital and financial disputes. Sharia courts have operated unofficially for years among Britain's Muslim communities but until now their rulings could not be enforced, relying instead on parties agreeing voluntarily. The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal panels, set up by lawyer Sheikh Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi, are now operating in London, Bradford, Manchester, Birmingham and Nuneaton, with more planned for Glasgow and Edinburgh. Mr Siddiqi said: 'We realised that under the Arbitration Act we can make rulings which can be enforced by county and High Courts. 'The Act allows disputes to be resolved using alternatives like tribunals. This method is called alternative dispute resolution, which for Muslims is what the sharia courts are.' Cases handled by the courts so far include Muslim divorce and inheritance to nuisance neighbours, he said.
But as well as civil disputes they have also handled six cases of domestic violence. In all six cases, he said, sharia judges ordered husbands to take anger management classes and mentoring from community elders, but issued no further punishment.
All the women subsequently withdrew their complaints to the police, who halted investigations. Mr Siddiqi claimed the advantage was that marriages were saved and couples given a second chance. But critics fear Muslim women victims will be pressured into accepting a sharia court settlement, and husbands will escape with lighter punishments than in a mainstream criminal court. In one recent inheritance dispute in Nuneaton, a Muslim man's estate was spit was between three daughters and two sons with each son receiving twice as much as each daughter - in keeping with sharia law. In a mainstream court all siblings would have been treated equally. Douglas Murray, the director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, condemned the latest development as 'appalling.' 'I donâ€™t think arbitration that is done by sharia should ever be endorsed or enforced by the British state.'
Shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve said: 'These tribunals have no place in passing binding decisions in divorce or criminal justice hearings. 'Far from handling more criminal cases. They should be handling none at all. 'British law is absolute and must remain so.'