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Legal aid and divorce: Theresa May’s cackhanded crusade against Sharia courts

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Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May seems to want some sort of crackdown on the role of Sharia Councils – complaining in particular that their decisions in divorce matters are unfair to women. Yet the Government has virtually cut off all legal aid for divorce proceedings – with the result that many Muslim women will have little choice but to have their cases heard by Sharia Councils. And the review of Sharia in England and Wales by Mona Siddiqui (published 1 February 2018) barely touches on the issue.

Sharia Councils (sometimes known as Sharia courts) are exactly the sort of bodies that the Government might think should be involved in divorce work. The Jewish Beth Din also arbitrates divorce cases, guided by halach, Jewish rabbinical law, and a recent legal case has affirmed that such arbitration will receive a measure of deference in the English and Welsh courts.

In abolishing legal aid for divorce and custody cases except in narrow circumstances, the Ministry of Justice said: “In cases like divorce, courts should more often be a last resort, not the first. Evidence shows that mediation is often more successful, cheaper and less acrimonious for all involved.”

Yet, only now does the Government seem to have realised that family law cases come before Sharia Councils – for advice, mediation or something closer to binding arbitration – and the values of Sharia Councils aren’t necessarily those espoused by Tory ministers and do not meet modern standards regarding female equality.

Yet women who might be dissatisfied with the results of of Sharia Council mediation or arbitration have been cut off from recourse to the courts by the new legal aid rules. As Home Secretary May said in her speech against extremism announcing a review of Sharia Councils: Read the rest of this entry

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