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The state cannot curb sharia law alone
Lost in the furore over Rowan Williams is a rather more interesting initiative about the relationship between religion and the state: Caroline Cox's bill to limit the influence of sharia law. I think it is a thoroughly good thing, and a skilled piece of politics. But it also goes to the heart of the difficult notion of consent.
Lady Cox's bill does not involve changing the existing law very much at all. She does propose to introduce one new criminal offence, that of passing oneself off as an adjudicator, which is to be punishable by five years in prison. She also wants a statutory duty for police officers, civil servants, and so on to tell women about their rights under existing anti-discrimination law.
The main thrust, however, is to ensure that the decisions of arbitration tribunals are only enforceable in civil disputes: not in family law or criminal law. The mention of criminal law is to bring in cases of domestic violence. So far as anyone knows, this is the legal position already. But it is not widely known. Because some judgments made by sharia courts will be enforced by the British state, it is often assumed – not least by sharia councils – that they all will be. The new criminal offence is supposed to ensure that no sharia councils make that mistake in future. What is to be enforceable are only the commercial disputes, not their rulings in matters of divorce, child custody or inheritance.
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