LINDA TSANG ASKS WHETHER, IN THE LATE 90S, HOLDING RELIGIOUS BELIEFS ENHANCES OR HINDERS PROFESSIONAL LIFEReligious differences in the legal profession have been the subject of heated exchanges in recent issues of Private Eye.

A recent diary item in the Eye alleged that the BBC did not instruct DJ Freeman because the firm was predominantly Jewish.

The BBC's legal affair department, which employs a Jewish lawyer, refuted the allegation furiously in a letter which the Eye published.The chief executive of DJ Freeman, Jonathan Lewis, comments: 'We have a number of Jewish partners, but we do not see ourselves as a Jewish firm, although we are obviously proud of our origins.

We practise law and advise clients free of religious encumbrances.

The firm has been established a long time and religion is not a factor in how we do business.'The incident has highlighted the issue of whether, at the end of the twentieth century, lawyers who hold religious beliefs -- which is not the case of all Jewish lawyers, many of whom are atheist or non-practising -- can use this as a positive networking advantage, or whether they still suffer discrimination.The Sunday Times of 15 August ran a story about how anti-Catholic prejudice surfaced against the Lord Advocate in Scotland, Lord Hardie, when he stood for election as Dean of the Faculty of Advocates in 1994.

And one of Lord Hardie's former fellow advocates Donald Findlay QC recently had to resign as vice-chairman of Rangers Football Club when he was shown on camera apparently singing a sectarian song.Despite such divisions in religion north of the border, the Lawyers Christian Fellowship -- which was originally set up by a Scottish barrister practising in London in 1852 -- now has its office in Scotland.

Its treasurer, solicitor Alan Holloway, says its 1,200 strong membership covers most of the UK, and its members include Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the former Lord Chancellor, who is still involved, and the late Lord Denning was also a member.

Members are individuals who follow the fellowship's manifesto: '[To] promote fellowship and prayer among Christians engaged in the legal profession, to uphold Christian principles in the administration of the law'.

Mr Holloway says there is no sectarian divide in the organisation, and also stresses: 'We would never claim that a Christian lawyer is bette r than another, but we do believe that God's principles apply to all of life.'As to whether that affects how clients choose lawyers, Mr Holloway says: 'Generally, people look for a lawyer who does the job well and provides a good and efficient service.

I have never been aware of particular choices of a lawyer of firm being made because of a particular faith or label.

Clients may know you personally and know that you are a Christian, or they may not know and do not care.

I have never probed into a client's background or asked about their faith, and equally, I would not push my faith on to clients or anyone else.'That position differs slightly from that of the Association of Christian Law Firms, which was founded in 1989, where the partners at the 40 member firms are all committed as Christians to 'practise law under the Lordship of Christ'.

Nigel Spoor, who is secretary and also a partner at Buckinghamshire firm Fairchild Dobbs, says: 'The commitment to Christianity means that we are looking to standards and excellence, to be the best lawyers that we can be at the same time as showing compassion and care according to Christianity.' He also emphasises: 'Our clients have all different religious beliefs, and we do not discriminate on the grounds of religion, but at the same time, we do not make a secret of it, membership of the association is included on the notepaper.'There are advantages in such membership, such as being contacted by Christian organisations or charities, which may be looking for legal advisers.

The possible disadvantage is an internal one, for firms in the association only accept as partners solicitors who are Christian.

At the moment, Law Society rules do not prohibit discrimination against political partners on grounds of religion, although the anti-discrimination code does cover race, sex and sexual orientation.

Mr Spoor argues: 'Partners want to be in partnership with people of like mind.' He adds that this could apply just as much to how they practise religion or even how they practise law.For Jewish lawyers who hold orthodox Jewish beliefs, the practicalities of religious observance, such as not working on a Saturday, can potentially cause them to be discriminated against by firms.Religious faith is not always a positive influence on a legal career.

Dibb Lupton Alsop partner Makbool Javaid, former chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, says: 'There is still a problem with religious discrimination in the legal profession, but that should not come as a surprise as it reflects the prevailing values and attitudes of society.

It is still easier for those that conform to the City type in pinstripes, compared, for example, to a Sikh or a practising Jew who observes the Sabbath.

The profession needs to show more flexibility to cater for the requirements and needs of individuals because society is becoming more multi-cultural.

With all the different faiths -- Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons -- how they observe their different religions has to be catered for.

With religious discrimination, it is possible to identify that there is a problem, but how you deal with this prejudice is more problematic.'There is no specific legislation covering religious discrimination in England and Wales, unlike in Northern Ireland.

However Martin Edwards, the head of employment law at Liverpool firm Mace Jones says: 'Cases in which it has been found that discrimination against Sikhs and Jews was racial discrimination have shown that even in the absence of laws against religious discrimination redress in the court s is possible.'But being from a particular religion can be a positive advantage in terms of gaining instructions.

Rashad Yaqoob, formerly of Wilde Sapte, who was one of a team of three lawyers acting recently for the Muslims on trial in the Yemen, was chosen because he specialised in middle east religion and investment and was a member and trustee of the Legal Studies Institute, which is involved with a variety of issues that have an impact on the muslim community.

Mr Yaqoob says that his background was a bonus, but the main reason why he was chosen to go the Yemen 'was not on the basis of competence, but because with such a politically and culturally sensitive case, with my knowledge and background about the Middle East and the laws there, I could achieve more in the limited amount of time available.

My time in the corporate department at Wilde Sapte meant that I had monitored political events and knew which buttons were worth pressing'.STEPHEN WARD TALKS TO SOLICITORS WHO REPRESENT CLIENTS BEFORE RELIGIOUS COURTS ABOUT HERESY AND MATRIMONYPractitioners concede that the Church of England's consistory courts can be 'very Anthony Trollope', drawing parallels with the esoteric disputes over promotions and stipends in his Barchester chronicles.'Ecclesiastical law is very specialised,' says Nicola Harding, a solicitor at Tunnard Crosfield in Ripon.

'There are probably only 60 solicitors in the country who practise regularly.'Each of the 43 dioceses of the Anglican Church has on retainer registrars -- solicitors in private practice who are expert in ecclesiastical law.

Ms Harding is joint registrar for Ripon, together with Christopher Tunnard, one of the partners in her firm.Until last year, Ms Harding was assistant registrar of the diocese of Blackburn, and one of six partners in a small Blackburn high street firm, Roebucks.Ms Harding -- who says church work now accounts for about half her practice -- trained as a barrister before becoming a solicitor, and acted for the Bishop of Durham who was the prosecutor in the last case to be heard under the 1963 Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure, which is in the process of being replaced.

The Anglican 'parliament' -- the General Synod -- is putting the finishing touches to a tribunal system to replace it.Under the old system proceedings were open to the public, but only four cases came to trial in 30 years.

With the tribunals, only the verdict will be open.

There is a second never-used part of the 1963 legislation, relating to doctrinal lapses by clergy.

Before the the 1963 legislation was passed, the last heresy trial was held in 1847 when the Bishop of Exeter accused a Reverend A Goreham of being unsound on the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, for not agreeing that when christened, a person is cleansed of original sin.The defendant in Durham, the case which Ms Harding prosecuted, was a vicar who had been accused of having sex with woman in the front seat of his Volvo, and the allegations had been splashed in The Sun.

He was exonerated by the court.Durham sole practitioner Richard Langdon acted for the defendant, in a case which was his only contact with the consistory courts.

He is principally a commercial solicitor, but he says his crime and family experience from his early years as a solicitor was also useful.The client had known him as a parishioner from his time as a curate a few years earlier, and when the allegations surfaced, he came back to the only solicitor he knew.

The client was fortunate in his choice.The first hearing was the equivalent of an old-style com mittal, before a chairman who was a solicitor.

Mr Langdon says: 'I did the advocacy.

It was in camera.' He then realised he would need a woman barrister for the full hearing, because it involved cross-examining his client's accuser about medical details.In the event the charges were withdrawn at the start of the full hearing, and the cross-examination was unnecessary.The church even has its own form of legal aid, paid by the Church Commissioners at legal aid rates.

'I received the same as I would have been paid for civil litigation,' says Mr Langdon.

'I wouldn't say I made a fortune out of it but it was good experience.'Since the case ended in 1997, he has received several telephone calls from other solicitors around the country seeking advice.Most ecclesiastical disciplinary cases are settled much earlier, according to John Rees, a partner at Winkworth Sherwood in Westminster, and registrar of the Oxford Diocese.

He says in most cases the lawyers on both sides are ecclesiastical experts.He is one of four partners at the firm who are registrars of various dioceses near London.

The firm's links with the Church of England go back more than half a century.Mr Rees estimates that about half his work for the church is pro bono.

'Most solicitors doing this work are doing it as a commitment to the church,' he explains.He says: 'A registrar is an officer of the diocese.

The relationship is more intimate than a straightforward retainer plus fees.'Disciplinary hearings are important but relatively rare, he says.

The more common areas of practice in ecclesiastical law cover a range of questions similar to those which might get thrown up by a large but dispersed foundation.Mr Rees adds: 'The question which comes up could be absolutely anything, including intellectual property relating to the copyright of hymns.

Personal injury compensation questions come up constantly because of the buildings with public access, planning questions and rights of way all crop up.'As the established Church in England and Wales, the Church of England is unique in having courts which act under statute law.The Jewish courts, or Beth Din, have laws predating not only the Anglican Church, but also the two millennia of Christianity.

They are still used to resolve disputes within the Jewish community in Britain.There are four active Beth Din, three in London, and one in Manchester.

The judges are Dayanim, rabbis who are especially learned.In legal terms they are the same as any other binding arbitration -- both sides agree in writing to submit to their ruling, which is then binding in English civil law.They may arbitrate on divorce settlements -- known in Hebrew as the get -- and in Jewish law actually grant the divorce, without which the couple cannot re-marry in a synagogue.

They also arbitrate in even large commercial disputes.As with any arbitration, one of the incentives for parties to use the Beth Din is the low costs, which are normally split evenly between winner and loser.More often than not, the parties will not be represented by solicitors, and like employment tribunals, the Beth Din allocates a set time to hear a case.

If it is not finished, the case is adjourned until a later date.According to Michael Neuberger, a partner in Pearlman Neuberger in Golders Green, north-west London, which has a large Jewish community: 'You can't make a practice out of Beth Din cases'.

His firm acts only rarely.

'Occasionally two sides in a dispute say: "Lets settle it at the Beth Din", 'he says.In a similar way, the Sharia council rules on matri monial and commercial disputes between Muslims.

Zaki Badawi, the chairman, says: 'The council includes three qualified barristers, so that we can be consistent with English law.'Mostly the hearings are on paper, but sometimes the court will summon a party to give oral evidence.

The proceedings are informal, and not binding legally, although they may have a strong moral force.'We are often contacted by a solicitor who wants to get a ruling on Muslim law,' Mr Badawi says.Mahmud Al-Rashid, the barrister chairman of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, which has membership of 150 is made up of about three quarters solicitors, says there is a strong belief among Moslem theorists that if one lives in the UK one ought to follow the law of the land unless it directly contradicts Muslim law.