The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently suggested that there is scope for greater use of Sharia law in this country. The comments were made in a Radio 4 interview, ahead of a lecture given by the Archbishop and chaired by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. The Archbishop's comments have been widely criticised by politicians and civil rights leaders. According to Home Office minister Tony McNulty , this would mean that we "fundamentally change the rule of law and adopt Sharia law". Shadow community cohesion minister Baroness Warsi suggests that it would mean "two systems of law running alongside each other", with believers "offered the choice of opting into one system or another", a situation she describes as "unacceptable".
The knee-jerk reaction of politicians and community leaders has largely missed the point. The Archbishop is not suggesting wholesale adoption of Sharia law in England and Wales, but a greater accommodation of some aspects of it in some areas of private law, and subject to safeguards. We already have several systems of law running alongside each other, by which people can opt to be bound. For example, parties to a contract can agree that the law of another jurisdiction applies to the contract - why not the law of another community or faith culture? British Jews can already opt into the jurisdiction of the Jewish religious courts, the Beth Din, to resolve business disputes, divorce and other civil matters. This has been acceptable for centuries. Parties to a civil dispute can choose any third-party arbitrator: why not an arbitrator from within their faith community?
So if English law already allows religious law to be applied in some circumstances, why did the Archbishop make these comments? At the risk of second-guessing an Archbishop, the first reason is to provoke debate. The lecture was the first in a series of debates, backed by the Centre for Islamic and Middle East Law , the Temple Church , the Muslim Council of Great Britain and others. Secondly, the Archbishop wants this to lead to a better theoretical framework for the interaction between the moral and cultural rules of faith communities (Anglican, Catholic , Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh etc) and the secular law of the land. This would make it easier for the Church of England and others to have "valid" input into policy-making and legislation. Finally, by encouraging moderate Muslims and other minority groups to feel that British society can accommodate their way of live and belief system (to some extent), we may prevent alienation and reduce the risk that close-knit faith minority communities will take matters into their own hands, dealing with disputes internally and perhaps less moderately.
Written by Ian Jones, Barrister at New Walk Chambers specialising in Civil Law.