A COURT of law should not adjudicate
on matters that unavoidably involved issues of doctrine and
religious faith, the Court of Appeal unanimously ruled last week.
It was striking out a claim in a dispute between two groups of
Sikhs as to the meaning and effect of two English trust deeds,
which conferred power on the "successor" of the First Holy Saint of
the Nirmal Sikhs to appoint and remove trustees.
The court proceedings, which were
begun in June 2008, originated from disputes about the trusteeship
and governance of two gurdwaras (Sikh temples), one in Birmingham,
and the other in High Wycombe.
The claimants, Daljit Singh Shergill,
and several others, sought court declarations that the defendants,
Mohinder Singh Khaira, and several others, had been removed from
their positions as trustees and officers of the two gurdwaras and
replaced by the claimants as lawfully appointed trustees and
The significant question in the case
was whether the ninth claimant, Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj,
was, as his fellow claimants asserted, the "Third Holy Saint", and
whether he was successor through the Second Holy Saint to the First
Holy Saint, who founded the gurdwaras in the 1980s.
The defendants asked the court to
strike out the claim on the ground that it unavoidably turned on
matters of religious faith, doctrine, and practice, on which the
parties held differing beliefs and allegiances. A secular court
could not adjudicate on the truth of disputed tenets of religious
belief and faith, or on the correctness of religious practices,
which were neither questions of law nor factual issues capable of
proof in court by admissible evidence.
The claimants disagreed. They said
that issues in the proceedings were justiciable (subject to trial
by a court of law) in the English courts because they concerned the
administration of valid charitable trusts for the advancement of
religion, which were established under and governed by English
Lord Justice Mummery, the presiding
judge, with whom Lord Justice Hooper and Lord Justice Pitchford
agree, said that he agreed that "questions about the place of
religion in our public life are far from unimportant".
Religion gave meaning and purpose to
some lives, he said, while having no meaning or purpose for others.
There would inevitably be disputes with a religious aspect which,
however controversial and profound to those involved, could not
exclude or limit the jurisdiction of the civil courts to determine
civil rights. This was not a case of that sort, Lord Justice
Non-justiciability was "a salutary
principle of judicial self-restraint", he said. Judges were not
capable of understanding and deciding everything, and it was not
their function to do so. They sat in courts of law, and there were
matters on which a court was not competent to speak with authority.
That was so where the questions were not matters of law at all,
such as subjective inward matters incapable of proof, direct
evidence, or inference.
The court was being asked to pronounce
on matters of religious doctrine and practice relating to the
validity of the disputed claims of the ninth claimant (who lived in
the Punjab) to be the holy and spiritual leader of the Nirmal Sikhs
and the successor to the First Holy Saint.
It would be necessary to investigate
the doctrines and practices of Sikhism in order to determine the
criteria relevant to that claim. The question of succession was
essentially a matter of subjective belief and faith on which
secular courts could not possibly reach a decision, Lord Justice
The court should put a halt to this
now, he said. The court risked diminishing respect for its own
authority - as happened, for example, to the 19th-century
jurisdiction of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In a
more religious age, it gave appellate decisions (often ignored) in
its ecclesiastical jurisdiction on points of the interpretation of
scripture, doctrine, sacraments, ritual, and vestments that arose
in religious controversies in the Established Church.
The continuation of these proceedings
would only inflict on the parties and their communities a further
waste of time and money in the fruitless pursuit of a judicial
determination that could not be made.
Voluntary procedures were also
available through mediators, including specialists in religious
disputes, and legal procedures might be available through the
Charity Commission. But the litigation had no realistic future in
the courts, the judges said.