Muslim couples must civilly register their marriage before or at the same time as their Islamic ceremony to ensure women are fully protected under family law, a government-commissioned independent review of sharia law has recommended.
The review, published today, says that linking Islamic marriage to civil marriage ensures 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 and simplifying the decision process of sharia councils'.
Religious marriages that take place in England and Wales which are not accompanied by civil registration are treated as non-marriages. They are not treated as void or voidable marriages as defined by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 which would attract the right to financial remedies.
The review says that legislative changes would be required to sections 75 to 77 of the Marriage Act 1949 so that the celebrant of specified marriages, including Islamic marriages, would face penalties should they fail to ensure the marriage is civilly registered. Minor amendments are also proposed on divorce legislation through changes to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 to ensure equality among all religions.
Sharia councils deal with aspects of Islamic law. They have no legal status, no legal binding authority under civil law and no legal jurisdiction in England and Wales. A review was commissioned by Theresa May in May 2016, when she was home secretary, to focus on the work of sharia councils in England and Wales as they were deemed to be discriminating against women who use their services on marriage and divorce matters.
The review was chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui, a specialist in Islamic and inter-religious studies. Siddiqui was supported by an expert panel including family law barrister Sam Momtaz QC, retired High Court judge Sir Mark Hedley, and specialist family law solicitor Anne Marie Hutchinson OBE QC (Hon).
The panel says a 'cultural change' is required so that Muslim communities acknowledge women's rights in civil law. Sharia councils must operate within the law and comply with best practice, non-discriminatory processes and existing regulatory structures. 'In particular, a clear message must be sent that an arbitration that applies sharia law in respect of financial remedies and/or child arrangements would fall foul of the Arbitration Act and its underlying protection,' the report states.
The report also stresses the need to raise public awareness on legal aid availibility and exceptions to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, including domestic violence and child protection exceptions.
The report recommends creating a body that would set up the process for councils to regulate themselves. The body, which would include sharia council panel members and specialist family law experts, would design a code of practice for councils to adopt.
The Home Office confirmed it will not pursue the review's recomendation to regulate Sharia councils. A spokesperson said: '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.' The Home Office will consider the rest of the review's findings and recommendations carefully, the spokersperson added.