Justice Min. Bill Enhances Rabbinic Court Powers

The justice minister's bureau was due to discuss a bill this week expanding the rabbinical courts' powers to rule on civilian matters, but canceled the meeting after the bill was leaked to the press.

The bill, a copy of which Haaretz obtained yesterday, gives rabbinical courts sole authority to hear any suit stemming from divorce settlements signed in a rabbinical court, including financial and custody disputes.

"A rabbinical court would be authorized to rule on a complaint about an agreement authorized by the [rabbinical] court or a verdict it issued, including enforcing the agreement or ruling, revoking it, changing or interpreting it," says the bill, drafted by the rabbinical courts' legal department.

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, however, denied that he was trying to expand the rabbinical courts' powers, as was reported in Haaretz on Monday. "Nothing of the sort," Neeman said. "No such thing." He said information leaked from his bureau was false.

Currently, suits stemming from a divorce agreement must be filed in civil court, so the bill would essentially transfer this power from the civil to the rabbinical courts.

The bill goes further than previous proposals, in giving rabbinical courts sole authority to hear suits against husbands who refuse to grant their wives a divorce, thus depriving these women of their current right to file such suits in civil court.

The bill - a government bill - was presented by the rabbinical courts' management to the Justice Ministry in preparation for its submission to the Knesset. The bill follows promises that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party made to Shas during the coalition negotiations. It has been distributed to officials from the cabinet and Chief Rabbinate.

Neeman's spokesman said yesterday that "the minister knows of no such bill as the one described in the report. Such a proposal was not laid on his table and he objects to the proposal as described in the report."

He said Neeman also intended to meet officials objecting to expanding the rabbinical courts' jurisdiction.

However, Haaretz has learned that although the proposal is incomplete, it's the only one to have been presented to the Justice Ministry's legislation department on the issue.

The draft, which empowers rabbinical courts even more than previous proposals had, gives the rabbinical courts authority that had been denied them by the High Court of Justice.

The bill would authorize the rabbinical courts to rule on suits against husbands who refuse to divorce their wives "on the basis of Torah laws."

In April 2006 the High Court reduced the rabbinical courts' powers and ruled that they were not authorized to rule on financial disputes and other issues where the law did not authorize them.

The High Court ruled that any disputes deriving from a divorce settlement after its signature would be heard only in civilian courts and that rabbinical courts were not authorized to mediate in post-divorce disputes even if both sides agreed to it.

In February 2008, cabinet minister Isaac Herzog pushed for a bill authorizing rabbinical courts to rule on civilian matters and disputes between divorced couples, if both parties agreed to this.

The new proposal does not limit rabbinical courts' jurisdiction on disputes in which both sides agree to have their case heard by a rabbinical court. It stipulates that the issuing of a divorce settlement authorizes the rabbinical courts to debate any complaint or suit deriving from this settlement.