In a speech this morning to the Foundation for Peace, Home Secretary Theresa May announced that the Government (assuming it wins the forthcoming General Election) will commission a study of the impact of sharia law in England and Wales.
Explaining the work of the Government’s new Extremism Analysis Unit she said this:
“There are some areas where – like in the application of shari’a law – we know enough to know we have a problem, but we do not yet know the full extent of the problem. For example, there is evidence of women being ‘divorced’ under shari’a law and left in penury, wives who are forced to return to abusive relationships because shari’a councils say a husband has a right to ‘chastise’, and shari’a councils giving the testimony of a woman only half the weight of the testimony of a man. We will therefore commission an independent figure to complete an investigation into the application of shari’a law in England and Wales.”
One can see the problem; however, as various commentators immediately pointed out, sharia councils are not the only religious tribunals around. Batei din and Roman Catholic marriage tribunals come immediately to mind – and for all I know there may be others. (The courts of the Church of England are sui generis and, in any case, already subject to the supervisory jurisdiction of the High Court.)
If there is indeed a particular problem with sharia councils then it obviously needs to be addressed: but to do so will require very careful policy formulation and drafting so as to avoid either religious discrimination against Muslims, contrary to Article 9 ECHR, on the one hand or having to regulate the religious tribunals of other faith communities on the other. Not easy at all.