From Leyton to Dewsbury, Sharia courts are already settling disputes
by Murad Ahmed, Frances Gibb
Sharia courts have already spread across Britain and are being used as an alternative and informal legal system by many British Muslims.
Unofficial Sharia courts, such as those run by the Islamic Sharia Council, hear cases across the country from Leyton in East London to Dewsbury in Yorkshire.
In hardline Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, Sharia rulings have led to floggings, stonings, amputations and beheadings. The more mundane form practised in Britain focuses mainly on issues around divorce and financial disputes.
Speaking to The Times, Suhaib Hasan, from the Islamic Sharia Council, who also acts as a judge, said his organisation receives 10 to 15 e-mails a day about different aspects of Sharia, from inheritance to marriage.
“From the beginning, people have wanted our services. More and more come back to us,” said Dr Hasan. “Each month we deal with 20 cases.”
The first court started in Birmingham in 1982. There are now about ten courts, with three in London and others in Birmingham, Rotherham and Dewsbury. They cater to Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds, mainly from the Indian sub-continent, but also many from Arab and Somalian backgrounds.
Though their rulings have no basis in law, participants abide by them voluntarily and often settle their disputes without referral to British law authorities.
Most cases relate to matrimonial issues. An Islamic Council based in Leyton, East London, says that 95 per cent of about 7,000 cases the council had dealt with since it opened in 1982 dealt with divorce – specifically, with releasing women from bad or forced Islamic marriages.
Though rare, some British Muslims have used these courts as an alternative to English criminal law. Ayda-rus Yusuf, a youth worker from Soma-lia, told BBC Radio 4 last year that a stabbing case was decided upon by an unofficial “court” sitting in Woolwich, southeast London.
He told the Law in Action programme that a group of Somali youths were arrested on suspicion of stabbing another Somali teenager. The victim’s family told the police it would be settled out of court and the suspects were released on bail.
A hearing was allegedly held with elders deciding that the assailants should compensate the victim.
Sharia cannot trump the basic fundamental principles of English law. Muslims can decide to have disputes settled according to Sharia in private arbitration, but they cannot ignore or abandon the basic human rights and responsibilities entrenched in the laws of this country. Lawyers gave warning yesterday that moves towards recognising aspects of Sharia could lead to a dual legal system.
But the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks could pave the way to recognition of Sharia Councils. David Pannick, QC, one of Britain’s top human rights and public law barristers, said: “Fundamental standards of fairness, of human rights which underpin our laws cannot be abrogated. They can’t just be ditched. If the Archibishop is saying this, then that is fundamentally wrong.”
Matters of criminal law, for instance, could not be adjudicated on privately, he said. Nor could marriages under UK law be dissolved under Sharia. “That would lead to the breakdown of society, if some groups of people could just ignore laws that applied to others.
“But if Muslims want to have a commercial or family dispute resolved by private arbitration, that can already be done,” he said.
1) From Leyton to Dewsbury, Sharia courts are already settling disputes