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Sharia law could have UK role, says lord chief justice Phillips says Islamic law could benefit society · He calls for system to govern marriages
Patrick Wintour and Riazat Butt
Friday July 4, 2008
Britain's most senior judge reopened one of the most highly charged debates in Britain last night when he said he was willing to see sharia law operate in the country, so long as it did not conflict with the laws of England and Wales, or lead to the imposition of severe physical punishments.
The remarks by the lord chief justice, Lord Phillips, in a speech to the London Muslim Council yesterday, had a conscious echo of the comments made by the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in February who argued that sharia law could sometimes be used in Britain. The archbishop, who suggested "sharia law was rooted in the sense of doing God's will in the ordinary things of law", was later forced to retract the statement.
Phillips insisted last night there was "widespread misunderstanding" of the nature of sharia law, and argued: "There is no reason why sharia principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution [with the understanding] ... that any sanctions for a failure to comply with the agreed terms of mediation would be drawn from the Laws of England and Wales." He also suggested sharia principles should be applied to marriage arrangements.
Less controversially, Phillips backed the creation of specialist financial products and services which comply with sharia principles, something the UK Treasury has acknowledged since 2002. The lord chief justice, in an address broadly designed to reassure the Muslim community that it was treated equally under British law, stressed that he was not countenancing "any notion of sharia courts operating in this country and seeking to impose such punishments". He said: "There can be no question of such courts sitting in this country, or such sanctions being applied here. "So far as the law is concerned, those who live in this country are governed by English and Welsh law and subject to the jurisdiction of the English and Welsh courts."
In the most controversial section, Phillips said: " It was not very radical to advocate embracing sharia law in the context of family disputes, for example, and our system already goes a long way towards accommodating the archbishop's suggestion. "It is possible in this country for those who are entering into a contractual agreement to agree that the agreement shall be governed by a law other than English law. Those who, in this country, are in dispute as to their respective rights are free to subject that dispute to the mediation of a chosen person, or to agree that the dispute shall be resolved by a chosen arbitrator or arbitrators. "So a Muslim woman who divorced according to Sharia principles would be free to marry again, but not if she only went to a civil court.
"But as far as aspects of matrimonial law are concerned, there is a limited precedent for English law to recognise aspects of religious laws, although when it comes to divorce this can only be effected in accordance with the civil law of this country."
Although he admitted some Muslim countries interpret sharia law as calling for severe physical punishment, Phillips insisted there was a misconception that sharia law is "only about mandating sanctions, such as flogging, stoning the cutting off of hands or death for those that fail to comply with the law".
Usama Hasan, imam at Al-Tawhid Mosque, Leyton, and an adviser to the Islamic Sharia Council, the longest-established body of its kind in the UK, gave a cautious welcome to Phillips' speech. He said: "[Phillips] is talking about provisions that are already out there for mediation and conflict resolution. Muslim couples would prefer to have their personal disputes to be settled by a sharia scholar because such a ruling would affect their status. "Aspects of Jewish divorce law have long been part of English law and it seems reasonable for Muslims to have the same treatment, but it can't lead to inequality or a splintering of British society."He added that it was difficult to have a sensible discussion about sharia law in the UK because the issue is "like a red rag" in the public's mind.
Parts of the lord chief justice's speech read like a more coherent version of what the Archbishop of Canterbury said in February regarding Sharia law. Indeed, Phillips chaired Williams' address at the Royal Courts of Justice. Both agreed that it was possible for individuals to voluntarily conduct their lives obeying Sharia principles, without this being in conflict with rights that were guaranteed by English law. Williams said some aspects of Islamic personal law, relating to marriage for example, could benefit from being included in the legal system as a way to accommodate Muslims who did not defer to British law. At no point did he, or Phillips, endorse Islamic law's harshest penalties. Nor did they call for a parallel legal system for Muslims living in Britain.
About this article
This article appeared in the Guardian on Friday July 04 2008 on p4 of the UK news section. It was last updated at 00:06 on July 04 2008.
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