Archive for August, 2008

A ‘Legal Pluralism’

I was reading the news and it was saying that apparently religious/ethnic courts are gaining momentum in the UK, which are able to enforce, for example, Somali customary law, Islamic law, and Jewish law.  The article used the term ‘legal pluralism’ to describe this.

For example, the Jewish Beth Din court hears divorce settlements, contractual rows between traders, and tenancy disputes.  Whilst they cannot force anyone to come within its jurisdiction, if someone agrees to settle a dispute in Beth Din, they are bound by English law to abide by the court’s decision, with English law recognising Beth Din as an agreed third party.

Sharia law is another controversial issue in this respect.  Currently, Islamic courts, like Jewish courts, are confined to only rule on civil matters; for example Islamic marriage/divorce and inheritance.  In this case, I wonder if allowing this system would disadvantage women, who are generally seen as inferior in these cultures?  I am sure it would not be legal if it heavily contradicted English law, however perhaps it could be leading in that direction?  For example, in some countries, an Islamic court’s punishment for adultery is death.  Whilst I am not condoning adultery, it is an unmistakable fact that it is now perceived as overall normal behaviour in Western society.  In emigrating to this country, many people, particularly 2nd generation immigrants, will adjust to the culture in the UK and settle in with the community.  So how can they then be held in court under the rulings of an ethnic court who may perceive their actions differently to that of an English court?  

I attended an LSE lecture last February entitled ‘Is Islamic Law Ethical’?  One of the questions the lecturer addressed was whether Muslim values inevitably clash with values of liberal democracies and civil societies of the west?  I do not believe that this is entirely true – the Qur’an does contain sharia, but not in any legal sense of the matter – that is a result of juristic activity.  As with many religions, including Christianity, there are always different interpretations of the text and thus, as the lecturer pointed out, sharia law cannot be said to be simply a monolithic and unequivocal expression of God’s will.

Therefore, is having a pluralised legal system within the UK really the answer?  Perhaps I am being narrow minded in this sense, but I personally feel that in a particular country people should abide by that country’s laws only; all cases should go through a normal UK court.  Perhaps instead of creating a plural legal system, the UK should instead simple take its multi-cultural nature into account in its legislation.  Even the Muslim Council of Britain says it will not support a dual legal system.


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