There are 80 courts in the UK enforcing Sharia law.
People can agree to ask a Sharia council to make a legally binding decision, but this must be in line with English law. No-one knows how many councils exist.
"There are 80 practising Sharia courts around the United Kingdom, and I've got no problem with different religions and different groups having their own private observance, but the law should be the law."
Nigel Farage, 14 January 2015
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Wednesday, the leader of UKIP referred to "80 practising Sharia courts around the United Kingdom".
While there are undoubtedly lots of different councils and tribunals dealing with Sharia principles, they are not courts of law. And a European University Institute paper from 2009 says that it's not clear how many exist, or how many different types there are.
An estimate of "85 at least" was given in a 2009 report by the think tank Civitas, but it includes online forums and admits that the actual number is "indeterminate". UKIP have told us that Mr. Farage took his information from a 2014 interview in the Telegraph, in which a member of the House of Lords, Baroness Cox, mentions the same figure as Civitas.
But as far as we are aware, there are no definitive studies.
Sharia councils usually give judgments on religious matters, but there are some circumstances in which a court of law might uphold decisions they make.
Generally speaking, courts won't interfere with decisions that are purely religious, but they don't accord them legal status either.
For instance, civil marriage recognised by the state for official purposes is different to the religious rituals that make it valid in the eyes of a given God. The religious celebrant has to comply with certain legal formalities, and must be authorised to register marriages in some cases. Equally, the paperwork required for a civil marriage or divorce needn't be recognised by your church.
For this reason, many Sharia organisations exist to issue Islamic divorce certificates, and give advice on other aspects of religious law. One piece of research from the University of Reading has identified 30 major councils, and some smaller ones, providing these services.
The way Sharia becomes legally binding is where a council or similar body is used for arbitration. This means taking a commercial or personal dispute—never anything covered by criminal law—to a neutral forum and agreeing to be bound by what it decides. It's up to the people having the dispute who they agree to be the arbiter, and they can even choose to apply rules other than English law to the affair (so long as there is no conflict between the two).
So if both parties agree, arbiters can decide certain issues by applying religious principles. This doesn't make them courts as such; their legal authority comes from being voluntarily chosen as a decision-maker, and they can't make any decisions that are contrary to national law.
The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal is an example of this approach. It appoints one solicitor or barrister, and one expert in Islamic law, to each case. In this way, it tries to ensure that the decision reached is in line with both secular and religious law.
Personal choice is also relevant to understanding last year's controversy over the Law Society's guidance—since withdrawn—on Sharia-compliant wills, which was reported as Islamic law being enshrined in the UK's legal system. In general, people can leave their property to whoever they want, in whatever proportion. So wills can be drafted in a way that complies with Islamic law as well as the law of the land.
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