Lord Carlile QC has expressed concern over the lack of awareness of lawyers and judges of the major human rights implications of sharia law. He was speaking at a presentation to peers on Wednesday about the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill being tabled by Baroness Cox and launched last month jointly with the NSS.
Lord Carlile said a major obstacle to progress was the growing enthusiasm for alternative dispute resolution, partly driven by the massive cuts in legal aid. He saw this leading to a loss of rights and that this was a major concern in the area of family law, particularly in cases of violence.
Lord Carlile emphasised that the rule of law is absolute and indivisible and that the introduction of sharia would result in structural inequality. He observed that while peers had highlighted sharia’s inequalities against women, no mention had been made of gay people. He was adamant that Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (fair trial) could not possibly be met by sharia courts.
He echoed peers’ concerns that rape within marriage is not regarded as illegal in sharia and in practice victims are denied the protection to which there are entitled under UK law because of “cultural sensitivity”, as the DPP often declines to prosecute. He added that Judicial Review could be applied for in such cases and is an effective public law remedy.
He too shared concerns about the potential encroachment of sharia “courts” into areas under this jurisdiction of the criminal and family law courts.
Speaking from the platform were Bishop Nazir Ali and Keith Porteous Wood (who, unusually, is in agreement with the bishop on this subject) and Finula Murphy of victim support agency Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO). Lady Cox spoke highly of the One Law For All campaign, which the NSS also supports. She indicated that a date for the Second Reading of the Bill has not yet been set.
Keith Porteous Wood noted that the Muslim representative in a recent discussion in Parliament about the use of the Arbitration Act to enforce sharia decisions had given the impression that he had no problem with stonings of women in Muslim countries. (He had also said that the superiority of sharia over man-made laws was so self evident it was not necessary to debate.)
Keith added that he had been heartened by how positively the Bill had been received both by the press and by peers. He was pleased that the supporters had been from moderates and a broad political base; although he warned of the danger of the moderate Bill being hijacked by religious extremists or fascist groups.
Keith also noted that in the last few weeks alone there had been calls for a parallel sharia legal system in Australia. He revealed he had spoken out against such ideas at a meeting of lawyers and academics sponsored by the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels– a gathering devoted to the “incorporation of Sharia law in the UK”. His dissenting voice had been very much in the minority, even after he reminded delegates that the jurisprudence Europe had built up on Human Rights in the last 50 years was the envy of the world, something the adoption of sharia would totally undermine.
He concluded by observing that the elected chamber had lacked the courage to tackle Sharia. He urged peers to support Baroness Cox’s Bill, in essence seeking to put a Human Rights wrapper around Sharia when being enforced by UK law.
It was also felt that tribunals strayed into areas that are the jurisdiction of criminal law, and by doing so protect offenders from prosecution and criminal records.