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Posted by Charlotte Butler-Kitto on 24th December 2015
Secret Religious Courts?

A recent Daily Mail article on Sharia Courts has highlighted the potential ‘shadow Courts’ that can exist alongside the UK legal system. The author claims that an independent study has found that sharia courts condemn British Muslim women to marital captivity, and fail to protect those women from domestic violence.

Religious courts are nothing new; most religions have a similar model – whether a court, a tribunal, a council, a panel or an intervention. They aim to resolve disputes in accordance with religious principles, rather than strictly in relation to the legal position. Many people prefer their private disputes to be adjudicated upon by someone from their own faith, who has the same beliefs and priorities that they do. Many religious courts or tribunals are fair and respectful to both parties, and we are not making any broad generalisations as to any individual religion.

Religious bodies can be recognised as having some decision-making power under the Arbitration Act 1996. Broadly speaking, the Arbitration Act recognises that people have a right to have their disputes dealt with in a manner of their choosing, whether that is with an independent qualified arbitrator (such as in a specialist commercial dispute), or under the auspices of a religious determination. In family cases, there is the possibility of consulting an independent family arbitrator who specialises in such disputes. Religious courts are another option. The key point is that you agree that the person hearing your dispute (whether arbitrator or Court) is the right person to do so.

In family proceedings, an arbitral award is not enforceable unless it is reflected in a Court Order. In relation to proceedings concerning children, a decision reached in arbitration can be presented to the Court, but the Court will not make the arbitral award into an Order unless it is satisfied that the proposals are in the best interests of the children, regardless of what the arbitral award contains. The Court will also not make an Order unless it is satisfied that it is necessary to do so to safeguard the best interests of the children.

In relation to awards purporting to deal with financial division on divorce, the Court does take more of the ‘self-determination’ approach. However the Court is still not a rubber-stamp. If one party wishes to challenge the arbitral award then they are entitled to do so, and the Court may ask them to show cause as to why the arbitral award should not be reflected in a Court Order.

Issues such as discrimination on grounds of gender or age, or undue influence to agree to the arbitration, may well be sufficient cause as to why an arbitral award may not be approved by a Court. You need not feel pushed into accepting the ‘judgment’ of a religious court or other arbitration body if you do not wish to do so, or if you feel that it is conducted unfairly.

If you are worried about being subjected to religious arbitration or other arbitration, and you do not think that this arbitration will be fair or you do not want to have your matters determined in this way, there are other options available to you. We can help you with free initial advice as to what your rights are, including the right to have your legal issues determined by a fair, impartial Court. Please do not feel that you must accede to an arbitral tribunal if you do not think you will be treated fairly. Please contact us confidentially and we can help you to explore the options open to you.

Solicitors Exeter – +44(0)1392 421777

Solicitors Plymouth – +44(0)1752 674999

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