Sharia Law Gets Foothold in British Legal System

Guidance allows wills that discriminate against women and exclude 'illegitimate' children and 'non-believers.'

Islamic legal text
Islamic legal text in British Museum. Wikimedia Commons

A move to enshrine Islamic law in the British legal system for the first time has aroused controversy in parliament and among the legal fraternity, according to the Sunday Telegraph.

New guidance from the Law Society, the body representing solicitors in England and Wales, allows solicitors to draw up "Sharia-compliant" wills, including those that deny women an equal share of inheritance and exclude “illegitimate” children or "non-believers" altogether, while still being compliant with British law.

The society denied promoting Sharia and insisted that it was simply responding to demand.

The move has been highly criticized by Baroness Cox, a cross-bench peer who leads a campaign to protect women from religiously sanctioned discrimination, who said the development was "deeply disturbing."

"This violates everything that we stand for," she said. "It would make the suffragettes turn in their graves."

Some lawyers have also been critical of the move, describing it as "astonishing" and suggesting that it could be the first step to a parallel legal system in Britain.

Although Sharia principles are not currently recognized by British courts, a system of such courts has grown across the country to help mediate in disputes between Muslim families.

The new guidance will allow people the freedom to choose a will to reflect their own religious beliefs, but will no doubt spark a wider debate around the implications for gender equality.

Nicholas Fluck, president of the Law Society, said it was “inaccurate and ill informed” to see the guidance as "promoting" Sharia law.

“The Law Society responded to requests from its members for guidance on how to help clients asking for wills that distribute their assets in accordance with Sharia practice," he said.

“Our practice note focuses on how to do that, where it is allowed under English law. The Law of England and Wales will give effect to wishes clearly expressed in a valid will in so far as those wishes are compliant with the law of England."