Britain’s got religious tribunals

A guest post from Russell Sandberg, of the Centre for Law & Religion at Cardiff Law School.

The latest article resulting from the Cardiff University study on Social Cohesion and Civil Law: Marriage, Divorce and Religious Courts has just been published in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. The article, “Britain’s Religious Tribunals: ‘Joint Governance’ in Practice” returns to the original lecture by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on civil law and religious law in England to suggest an alternative way forward.

In that now infamous lecture, Williams drew upon the work of the Canadian scholar Ayelet Shachar, endorsing her concept of “transformative accommodation”. The article suggests that the focus upon transformative accommodation by the Archbishop and subsequent commentators is unfortunate, given that Shachar actually proposes transformative accommodation as just one variant of what she refers to as “joint governance” – albeit her preferred variant.

The article revisits Shachar’s work in the context of the literature on multiculturalism and political theory to suggest that transformative accommodation is a red-herring.  It is argued that Shachar’s umbrella concept of joint governance is actually of most use. Moreover, the  other variants of joint governance which Shachar describes but discards can actually be developed in a way that could prove to be more useful than transformative accommodation.

To reach this conclusion, the article draws upon the empirical findings of the Cardiff University project. Funded by the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme, the one-year study investigated how three different religious tribunals in the UK (the London Beth Din of the United Synagogue, the Sharia Council of the Birmingham Central Mosque and the Roman Catholic National Tribunal for Wales) deal with divorces and marriage annulments. The research, led by Professor Gillian Douglas and a multidisciplinary team based at Cardiff, took the form of interviews with staff working in these tribunals, complemented by workshops, observation and analysis of statistics.

The article suggests that the empirical findings provide evidence of “joint governance” and underline the value of the variants that Shachar prematurely discards.

The article has been written by the project team: Dr Russell Sandberg, Professor Gillian Douglas, Professor Norman Doe, Dr Sophie Gilliat-Ray and Asma Khan. The citation is: (2013) 33(2) Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 263-291.