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Findings of review into Sharia law and divorce are released by Home Office

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The Home Office has recently published the results of its review into the use of Sharia law in England and Wales. The review has been prepared by a panel of experts (which includes family lawyers) and has examined the interplay between religious marriages and divorces (overseen by Sharia councils) and civil marriages and divorces which are governed by UK law. When preparing the report, the panel sought the advice of two Imams (one of whom is also a solicitor) who assisted in explaining the application and theological context of Sharia law. The panel was chaired by the esteemed Mona Siddiqui OBE, a Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

One of the most interesting findings of the review was that “almost all” of the Sharia councils’ users are female and that over 90% of these women were using the councils in order to seek a religious divorce.

The panel found that many Islamic marriages are not civilly registered. Couples who have not civilly registered their Islamic marriage are unable to obtain a “civil” divorce through the Courts of England and Wales. In order to end their marriage, Muslim women in particular are consulting Sharia councils who can grant them a religious divorce; a divorce recognised by the Sharia council but not by domestic law. Whilst some Muslim men will seek the council’s assistance in dissolving their marriage, this is far more rare as men have the option of granting themselves a unilateral divorce (known as a “talaq”).

What must be understood is that if couples do not civilly register their Islamic marriage, they are not able to obtain a civil divorce or seek financial relief from their spouse under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 –the domestic legislation used by spouses seeking financial provision upon divorce. Couples who have not registered their religious marriage may reach an agreement on the division of their assets on divorce, but they will not have the right to make an application through the Family Courts for financial provision, neither will they have the enforcement options open to couples who have had financial provision approved or ordered by the Family Courts.

The panel recommended that, in order to ensure that Muslim couples  have the option of using domestic legislation when divorcing, there should be amendments to the Marriage Act 1949 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 that would require Muslim couples to undergo a civil marriage ceremony before or alongside the Islamic marriage ceremony. The panel also recommended that sanctions were imposed against the celebrant of the Islamic marriage if this registration was not completed. Whether the panel’s proposals will be adopted remains to be seen, but the review is important in bringing attention to the issue as many couples may not know that their marriage, or indeed divorce, is not recognised under UK law.

If you would like any further advice regarding this, or any other, family law issue please contact a member of our specialist Family Law Team.