The Ministry of Justice should issue guidance to ensure that religious and cultural tribunals comply with UK standards on gender equality and judicial independence, according to a high-profile commission into the role of religion and society.
‘Living with a Difference’, the report of the self-styled Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, says that many submissions to its inquiry viewed religion-based tribunals and councils, particularly those associated with Islam and Judaism, ‘negatively or as having no place in British society’.
However, the final report of its two-year inquiry rejects calls for a ban, concluding that: ‘More needs to be known about the experience and impact of tribunal decisions on women users, and about the impact of state policies on the procedures and substantive rules of these tribunals.’ Instread, it recommends that the MoJ examines issues arising from formal and informal religious tribunals with a view to:
- Disseminating best practice – particularly with regards to good practice structures and processes and the promotion of gender equality;
- Determining whether marriages between members of minority religious groups should be required, first or simultaneously, to be registered according to English law; and
- Determining whether all religious tribunals addressing civil disputes should be required to have structures and processes compatible with arbitration legislation.
The commission, chaired by Lady Butler-Sloss, former president of the Family Division, was set up by the Woolf Institute in Cambridge in 2013. Its remit was ‘to consider the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain’ and make recommendations for public policy.
Among other recommendations, the report calls for a ‘national conversation’ to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life and that the ‘pluralist character or modern society should be reflected in national and civil events’. In a section on media it proposes that every newsroom should retain ‘at least one religion and belief specialist’.
The National Secular Society described the report as being ‘completely at odds with the religious indifference that permeates British society’.
Campaign group One Law for All said it would hand a petition calling for the ‘dismantling of parallel legal systems’ in to Downing Street on Thursday, international human rights day.