Going back to the “sharia courts” story

Going back to the “sharia courts” story, which was first reported in a regional newspaper but has now hit the national newspapers, I missed a bit of the story which I have to say is troublesome:

No criminal matters can be considered by sharia arbitrators and no corporal punishment can be imposed. The tribunal can, however, adjudicate on cases of domestic violence – with a requirement to pass details to the police.

Arbitration is fine and perfectly legal in English law for civil matters.* But domestic violence is a criminal act. This adds confusion to some of the additional details being reported in The Times:

In the six cases of domestic violence, [Faiz-ul-Aqtab] Siddiqi said the judges ordered the husbands to take anger management classes and mentoring from community elders. There was no further punishment.

In each case, the women subsequently withdrew the complaints they had lodged with the police and the police stopped their investigations.

In the words of one former judge, what these sorts of religious arbitration panels “mustn’t do – and this must never happen – is to stray into the field of criminal matters”. The arbitration ‘judges’ (?!) should not be making any pronouncements, whatsoever, on a matter which is with the police. If the reports are true, then it is wholly irresponsible of them to have done so.

What is probably needed is an expert’s analysis on the line between a criminal matter (related to domestic violence) and marital issues under consideration by a Muslim arbitration tribunal, such as those reported by The Times (and repeated elsewhere). The erosion of this line is not, and should not, be considered acceptable. Further, as one legal scholar has argued, “the state should seek to apply all human rights and anti-discrimination legislation rigorously to avoid structural discrimination in the operation of these minority courts of arbitration”. Anything less would be an abdication of responsibility by the state.

Now that these “courts” (tribunals) are fully under way in a more formal and open manner, we can probably expect more stories to begin emerging in the press.

*I am sympathetic to talk of ‘community pressure’, but it is wrong to arbitrarily remove legal avenues simply for people whose views one may not agree with. If you don’t like the law, campaign for a change.