Religious courts reform

Law researchers at Cardiff University are calling for an overhaul of proposed legislation governing the use of religious courts in the UK

In a new publication, Religion and Legal Pluralism , the researchers explore the extent to which religious legal systems should be permitted and recognised, and include a draft Bill which focuses on the issue of consent that arises from their use.

At the core of the draft Bill is the proposition that what matters is whether the use of religious tribunals is consensual or not – an issue the researchers say is not adequately dealt with under a current Bill being considered by Parliament.

The draft Bill developed by the researchers stipulates that the activities of a religious tribunal would only be lawful where all parties consent, but that decisions of a criminal nature and relating to disputes about children would always be unlawful, regardless of whether or not the parties consent.
This follows the legal definitions of consent under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

The Bill proposes a statutory offence of exercising or attempting to exercise a judicial or quasi-judicial function in respect of a person without that person’s consent.

This, researchers say, is narrower than Baroness Cox’s Bill which is being considered by Parliament, which proposes an offence of falsely claiming jurisdiction.

The draft Bill is designed to apply to all decisions by religious courts and tribunals, in contrast to Baroness Cox’s Bill which only deals with arbitration disputes.

The book and draft Bill stem from earlier AHRC-funded research undertaken by the addressing concerns raised in the aftermath of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture on Religious and Civil Law in 2008, which provoked an animated debate concerning the extent to which English law should accommodate religious legal systems, such as Sharia law.

The team’s earlier project explored how religious law already functions alongside civil law in the area of marriage and divorce, examining the workings of three religious courts in detail.

Dr Russell Sandberg from Cardiff University’s School of Law and Politics, who edited the book, said: “Concerns about religious courts have arisen in many Western states and with increased frequency. The most recent example was in March 2015, when Theresa May spoke of examples of Sharia law being used to discriminate against women, but said that we did not know the extent of the problem.

“This has led to a growing literature; but much of the work has been theoretical or focused on just one religion. Our work provides detailed examples of how religious laws already operate in England and Wales, as well as a number of theoretically-informed reflections on the extent to which religious legal systems, such as Sharia law, should be accommodated.

“Importantly, it also covers the shortcomings of current legislation being considered by Parliament – particularly on the issue of consent – therefore offering an alternative option that provokes further discussion on this complex issue.