Growing numbers of non-Muslims are turning to Sharia “courts” to resolve disputes in Britain, it has been claimed. Up to five per cent of cases heard by the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT) involve people who do not follow the Islamic faith, it has been estimated.
The body operates court-like arbitration hearings in London, Bradford, Birmingham, Coventry and Manchester, mainly dealing with disputes between business partners and mosques. Those who use the service agree voluntarily to submit to its adjudication but its rulings are considered to be legally binding and can be enforced in county courts under the 1996 Arbitration Act. A separate body, the Islamic Sharia Council, has been operating for several years, hearing divorce cases with a panel of seven “judges” based in London.
The MAT said that the greater weight attached to oral agreements in its hearings than the courts was making its service attractive to non-Muslims in Britain, who it estimates are now involved in one in 20 of its cases. “We put weight on oral agreements, whereas the British courts do not,” said Freed Chedie, a spokesman.
For the first time, the Islamic Sharia Council has granted access to a newspaper to observe the entire sharia legal process in Britain. Over several weeks, the author was allowed to witness the filing of complaints, individual testimony hearings and the monthly meeting of imams, or judges, where rulings are handed down.
Sharia has been operating in the UK, in parallel to the British legal system, since 1982. Work includes issuing fatwas – religious rulings on matters ranging from why Islam considers homosexuality a sin to why two women are equivalent to one male witness in an Islamic court. The Islamic Sharia Council also rules on individual cases, primarily in matters of Muslim personal or civil law: divorce, marriage, inheritance and settlement of dowry payments are the most common.
However, sharia is also being used informally within the Muslim community to tackle crime such as gang fights or stabbings, bypassing police and the British court system. A few hardline leaders would like it to be taken even further. One religious leader said that Britain should adopt sharia punishments such as stoning and the chopping off of hands to reduce violent crime.
There are as many as 85 sharia courts operating in Britain, according to a new report, published by the think-tank Civitas. Academic Denis MacEoin, the report’s author, said the existence of the courts practising Islamic law could lead to different legal standards being applied to Muslim and non-Muslim citizens. He said many of the courts operate out of mosques and their rulings are closed off to non-Muslims.
In previous reports it was claimed there were only five sharia courts in the UK, working in London, Manchester, Bradford, Birmingham and Nuneaton. His report includes a list of previous sharia judgements which he believes give an indication of the type of ruling being handed down by the courts working in the UK.