Sharia law review recommends civil marriage requirement for Muslim couples
The findings of an independent assessment launched by the then home secretary Theresa May have been published.
Muslim couples should be legally required to have a civil marriage in addition to an Islamic ceremony, a government-ordered review of Sharia law has concluded.
The measure would mean more women had protection under family law and would face “less discriminatory practices”, according to the independent assessment.
It also called for regulation of Sharia councils, which deal with aspects of Islamic law, but the proposal was immediately dismissed by the Government.
As home secretary, Theresa May launched the review to explore whether Sharia law was being misused or applied in a way that was incompatible with domestic law in England and Wales.
A report detailing the findings published on Thursday said the vast majority of people using Sharia councils were women seeking an Islamic divorce.
Examples of “bad practice” included inappropriate questioning on personal relationship matters and women being invited to make concessions to their husbands in order to secure a divorce.
In one instance a forced marriage victim was asked to attend a council at the same time as her family, according to the report.
The review found the closure of Sharia councils was “not a viable option”, concluding they were “fulfilling a need in some Muslim communities”.
It flagged up positive practices, including the reporting of family violence to police and waiving of fees of those unable to pay.
Evidence heard by the review indicated that the percentage of Muslim couples failing to have a civil marriage was “high and increasing”.
The panel called for legislative changes that would mean civil marriages were conducted before or at the same time as the Islamic ceremony, bringing Islamic marriage in line with Christian and Jewish marriage in the eyes of the law.
“A significant reason many women go to Sharia councils is that some Muslim couples are entering into an Islamic marriage but not civilly registering their marriage,” the report said.
“This means that they are not entitled to a civil divorce and choose to formally end their marriage through the Sharia councils.
“By linking Islamic marriage to civil marriage it ensures that a greater number of women will have the full protection afforded to them in family law and they will face less discriminatory practices.”
Under the proposal, amendments would be made to the Marriage Act 1949 “so that the celebrant of any marriage, including Islamic marriages, would face penalties should they fail to ensure the marriage is also civilly registered”.
The review also proposed regulating Sharia councils through the creation of a state-established body and code of practice.
Chair of the review Professor Mona Siddiqui said: “The review’s findings are based on the evidence we heard from an array of individuals and organisations.
“The Sharia councils and women’s groups we have spoken to, have expressed the view that some regulation of Sharia councils is both wanted and needed.
“We have balanced their concerns with the recommendation of civil registration of marriages.”
The Home Office said the recommendation on regulation, which was not unanimously supported by the review panel, would not be taken forward.
A spokesman said: “Sharia law has no jurisdiction in the UK and we would not facilitate or endorse regulation, which could present councils as an alternative to UK laws.
“In Britain we have a long tradition of freedom of worship and religious tolerance, where many people of different faiths follow religious codes and practices and benefit from their guidance.
“The Government has no intention of changing this position.
“We will consider carefully the review’s findings and its remaining recommendations.”
The exact number of Sharia councils operating in England and Wales is unknown but estimates vary from 30 to 85.