This is the front page of today’s Sunday Telegraph. You can read the “Islamic law is adopted by British legal chiefs” article here. The basis for this shock-horror headline is the news that the Law Society has issued guidance for solicitors on “how wills should be drafted to fit Islamic traditions while being valid under British law”.
Predictably, Baroness Cox is quoted as saying that she finds this development “deeply disturbing” and will be raising it with ministers. “This violates everything that we stand for,” the indignant Cox declares. “It would make the Suffragettes turn in their graves.”
She is described as “a cross-bench peer leading a Parliamentary campaign to protect women from religiously sanctioned discrimination, including from unofficial Sharia courts in Britain”. The Telegraph doesn’t see fit to mention the fact that it was Cox, along with the then UKIP leader Lord Pearson, who invited raving Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders to show his anti-Muslim film Fitna at the House of Lords, while the English Defence League demonstrated outside in support of Wilders.
In an accompanying editorial headed “Britain’s justice system should be the same for all” and subtitled “Extending sharia threatens to create a parallel legal system”, the Telegraph accuses the Law Society of “adopting legal practices that are hostile to our values”. The editorial asserts: “Many reasonable people will feel that sharia, which unapologetically discriminates against women, is incompatible with British ideas of fairness and decency. Britain’s legal system has its roots in Judaeo-Christian morality. It is, or should be, a single system of law that applies to everyone. That is the most fundamental principle of British justice.”
You don’t have to be an expert on inheritance law to see what a load of nonsense this is. The reality is that there is indeed a single system of law that applies to everyone, and the Law Society’s guidance doesn’t undermine that at all. As even Baroness Cox concedes, individuals are free to leave their property to whoever they wish when they die, and on whatever basis they choose, including that of religion (although there are of course a number of grounds on which a will may be contested).
The Telegraph appears to be arguing that non-Muslims should be free to do this but Muslims should not. If that principle were to be applied, there really would be a parallel legal system for Muslims.
You can read the Law Society’s advice here.
Update: A reader draws our attention to a report on the Law Society’s new advice by IBB Solicitors in west London, which makes it clear that that there is no question of implementing sharia principles in opposition to the existing legal system:
“The guidance comes as courts have made clear that they are prepared to endorse marital financial agreements made under Sharia if they comply with English law. The new advice says that clients in England and Wales can legally choose to bequeath their assets according to Sharia, providing that the will is signed in accordance with the requirements set out in the Wills Act 1837. The Law Society, the professional body for 150,000 solicitors, has received an increasing number of requests from solicitors who say that clients want wills that will withstand challenges in the courts while complying with their religious principles. We can help you write a will that is compliant with both Sharia law and English law, please speak to a member of our Wills, Trust and Probate team.”
Update 2: See also Steven Rose, “Creeping Sharia law through the Law Society? No, just bad journalism”, Tell Mama, 23 March 2014
Update 3: This is the Law Society’s response, via Twitter:
Update 4: See also Sam Leith, “Don’t fall for the latest sharia law scare story”, Evening Standard, 24 March 2014
Update 5: See “Society defends sharia wills practice note”, Law Gazette, 24 March 2014
Update 6: See also “Islamic Solicitor Aina Khan talks to Nick Ferrari LBC News and BBC Radio 5 Live on: ‘Islamic law is adopted by British legal chiefs’ – Telegraph newspaper 22nd March 2014”, PRWeb, 25 March 2014
Update 7: Over at the Daily Mirror Alison Phillips offers her take on the controversy:
If I were found cheating on my husband, I’d expect screaming matches, icy silences and the threat of being booted out the house. What I wouldn’t expect is to be stoned to death outside the front door. Fairly reasonable in 21st-century Britain, where women aren’t regarded as mere possessions of their husbands.
Except now some aspects of Sharia law, which can permit women to be stoned to death, are to be used in British courts. Not the stoning bit (yet), but the Sharia succession rules, which state male heirs can inherit double the amount of female heirs. Non-Muslim women may not be able to inherit at all.