Shadow Minister for Local Communities and Government, Paul Goodman, has been raising the issue of Muslim Arbitration Tribunals. Yesterday he said in the House of Commons:
"I make no apology for returning to the implications for community cohesion and local government of sharia courts in the UK, a matter on which the new Minister quite properly opined last weekend and which we discussed yesterday. As both I and the Minister intimated yesterday, my hon. and learned Friend the shadow Home Secretary has received a letter from the Home Secretary confirming that Muslim arbitration tribunals were established in Britain last year. We have no objection in principle to the use of arbitration vehicles, including such tribunals, to resolve private family and contractual disputes. However, those tribunals will clearly be run by sharia judges and are therefore likely be marketed to Muslims as state-licensed sharia courts. There are, in particular, important questions about whether Muslim women will always come before such tribunals voluntarily.
I want to put it on record that we are deeply concerned about the paucity of information that we have received from the Home Office and about the implications, therefore, for community cohesion. This is a subject of great public interest, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, for one, will confirm.
Ministers do not appear to have announced the establishment of these tribunals last year. They have not said how many there are, or who was consulted. They have not told us who the mediators or judges are, how many cases have been heard or what measures are in place to protect women. The House and the public are being told very little. I was grateful to the Minister for confirming yesterday that he will use his good offices to clear up these matters, by ensuring that we get answers in writing, but our message to Ministers this afternoon is that they should not take refuge in letters that conceal more than they reveal."
A written answer from Bridget Prentice of the Ministry of Justice published on Monday stated unequivocally that:
"The legal system that operates the courts in England and Wales does not incorporate any elements of Sharia law."
Sadiq Khan, minister for community cohesion, was interviewed for this weekend’s Sunday Times. In relation to the "beth din" courts that help resolve family disputes among Jewish people, Mr Khan is quoted as saying:
“Jewish law has a long history. There are not the same areas of concern that there are with sharia law. At some stage in the future I do not rule out the possibility that the Muslim diaspora in this country may be advanced enough. But now is not the right time.”
He is further quoted as saying:
“There is unequal bargaining power between men and women in this country … Women can be abused and persuaded to do things that they shouldn’t have to do.”
These waters are far too muddy. We need properly to understand the status of Muslim Arbitration Tribunals, not least whether their findings are to be treated as legally binding. If the tribunals are presided over by a Sharia judge, how does this square with the Government’s insistence that Sharia law is not incorporated into our legal system?
What efforts are the Government making to establish that people – including children – are able to opt-out of a religious tribunal system? No-one should be compelled to follow any faith, and the law of the land should allow a person to renounce their faith on the spot. Where does that leave the whole concept of religious tribunals?