The review board concluded that since the closure of sharia courts in the UK is “not a viable option,” the government should formally regulate them and impose a code of conduct. The primary recommendation of the board was that Muslim couples should be legally required to register their marriages in a civil court before or at the same time as their Islamic ceremony. This would be so “a greater number of women will have the full protection afforded to them in family law and the right to a civil divorce,” lessening the need to attend sharia councils and simplifying the process if they choose to do so.
A large proportion of Muslim women in the UK do not register their sharia marriages with the state, thereby forfeiting their legal rights (to property, custody, etc.) should a divorce take place. The review noted that nearly all those using sharia council were women, with the majority of them seeking Islamic divorce.
In addition, the review board urged the government to implement an awareness campaign informing Muslim women of their civil rights.
In a statement rejecting the idea of regulating the sharia courts, the government said,
“We will not be taking forward the review’s recommendation to regulate sharia councils. 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.”
The review was commissioned by Prime Minister Theresa May in 2016 when she was home secretary to establish whether or not sharia councils were acting in ways incompatible with British law.
It is estimated that there are between 30 to 85 sharia councils operating in Britain.
The 18-month review, chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui, an Islamic theology expert, was presented to the parliament. The review concluded that banning the councils would be counterproductive and force them underground.
The civic action group One Law for All has lobbied for sharia councils to be banned on the grounds that they are an alternative source of law and thus are a threat to the sovereignty of the state. Baroness Caroline Cox has also called for regulation, asking for prison sentences for sharia councils that falsely represent themselves as legally empowered bodies.
The former bishop of Rochester, who was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan previously spoke out against the review saying, “It asks whether the ‘application’ of sharia is incompatible with English law, when it should be asking whether sharia itself is incompatible with English law,” he said in written evidence submitted to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.
“If sharia is recognized in any way in terms of the public law, it will introduce a principle of contradiction in the body of the law, which will cause enormous problems,” he added.
A more detailed analysis of the issues surrounding sharia in the UK is covered in Dr. Elham Manea’s excellent book Women and Sharia Law, which specifically looks at some of the human rights problems relating to sharia councils in the UK.