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Lord Chief Justice backs Dr Williams over sharia

by Ed Beavan

THE Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, has suggested that aspects of sharia could be incorporated into British law in the future.

In a speech at the London Muslim Centre in Whitechapel, Lord Phillips, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said that principles of sharia could be used in certain contexts, such as resolving marital or financial disputes. He referred to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on sharia in earlier this year, which caused widespread controversy (News, 15 February).

He said that Dr Williams’s comments had not been “clearly understood” by all. “A point that the Archbishop was making was that it was possible for individuals voluntarily to conduct their lives in accordance with sharia principles, without this being in conflict with the rights guaranteed by our law.”

He added it was “not very radical to advocate embracing sharia law in the context of family disputes”. “There is no reason why principles of sharia law, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution.

“It must be recognised, however, that any sanctions for a failure to comply with the agreed terms of the mediation would be drawn from the laws of England and Wales,” he went on.

Lord Phillips said that there were still many misconceptions about sharia, based on the severe physical punishments that are handed down in some Islamic countries that use the system. Many people’s views were coloured by Islamist extremists who invoked it to justify terrorist atrocities.

He was clear, however, that there was “no question” of sharia courts sitting in this country: “Those who live in this country are governed by English law.”

The Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, said he had read Lord Phillips speech with interest, but rejected his assertion that English law is secular. He argued that it was “rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition originating from the Bible”.

He said that any attempts to recognise sharia in terms of public law would be “fraught with difficulties . . . because it arises from a different set of assumptions from the tradition of law in this country”.

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