Baroness Cox, an independent peer, has introduced a Private Member’s Bill to ensure Sharia tribunals and councils operate within the law and do not form a concurrent legal system within the UK.
The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill has been launched by Baroness Cox as she believes that some Sharia tribunals and councils are “going well beyond their legal remit and some Sharia court rulings are being misrepresented as having the force of the UK law.”
Baroness Cox is particularly concerned that women are being discriminated against within Sharia courts and that they are being deprived of their legal rights.
The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal was set up in 2007 and operates under the Arbitration Act 1006. As the Tribunal is set up as a arbitration service under UK law, its decisions are enforceable under UK courts, as the decisions of arbitrators are final. Because of the legally binding nature of arbitration, it can only be used to resolve a dispute if all the parties to the dispute have agreed to it and the rules, for example Sharia law, that will be applied.
Baroness Cox believes that some women are being ‘intimidated’ and ‘coerced’ into going before them, and if they do give their consent, this is often because they are ignorant of their rights under UK law.
In addition, she is concerned that the Sharia Tribunals are moving away from deciding commercial matters and have begun deciding family matters, which was not part of their original purpose.
There are also a number of less formal Sharia councils in the UK. These deal almost exclusively with family issues within the Muslim community. Parties can come before a council and receive a solution to their problem that complies with Sharia law.
Baroness Cox warns that some of these councils are misrepresenting themselves as being able to pass legally binding decisions and that women are often discriminated against in their decisions.
Her new Bill will attempt to ensure that Muslim women are protected against from discrimination and that any attempts by extreme groups to “establish a parallel legal system will be prosecuted as unlawful.”
The Islamic Sharia Council has responded to the Baroness’s Bill. In a statement issued by Secretary Suhaib Hasan, the Council said that it is incorrect for the Baroness to assume that the Council considers its judgements to be superior to those of the English Legal System. The statement said that the Council is only concerned with the religious aspect of the cases that come before it, and that its involvement is “akin to couples having a religious marriage (Nikah) at the mosque and then a civil marriage at their local Registry office.”