UK: Law body’s guide to sharia ‘backs discrimination’

The Law Society has been accused of “legitimising” discrimination against women after it issued guidance on applying sharia, or Islamic law, to wills.

In a practice note issued to solicitors this month, the society said clients in England and Wales could legally choose to bequeath their assets according to sharia rules, as long as the signature on the will complied with English law.

The society said the guidance “has been published for solicitors to assist them with the intricacies of sharia succession rules, which is the code of law derived from the Koran and from the teachings and example of Muhammad”.

The guidance states: “As a general rule, a male heir will inherit twice the amount that a female heir will receive.” Illegitimate or adopted children and Muslims who marry outside their religion are excluded from inheritance.

The document admits that sharia rules of succession “might be too uncertain for an English court to uphold, although this has not yet been tested”.

Sadikur Rahman of the Lawyers’ Secular Society said the Law Society had caused a potential conflict with its own code of conduct, which states that solicitors must encourage “equality of opportunity and respect for diversity”.

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In addition, solicitors were officers of the court and required to abide by the Equality Act 2010.

“This guidance essentially provides legitimacy to use a system of law that is discriminatory towards women, particularly in the area of inheritance provisions,” Rahman said.

“There seems no recognition of the fact that solicitors are being asked to use and accommodate instructions which in any other circumstances would be socially unacceptable or at which a solicitor may balk.

“Suppose a client instructed that their assets should not go to a relative because they happened to be of a different colour?”

Last night, the Law Society defended its decision to issue the document. “The guidance we published is purely to help solicitors who have Muslim clients who have asked them to prepare a will that is consistent with sharia succession rules,” a spokesman said.

“It is not in any way saying the British legal system should completely adopt it.”

Marriages conducted under sharia law are not recognised under English law, so Muslim couples must undergo a civil ceremony.

In 2008 the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said there was “a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with some other aspects of religious law”.

He was backed by the then lord chief justice, Lord Phillips, who said: “Our system already goes a long way towards accommodating the archbishop’s suggestion. It is possible in this country for those who are entering into a contractual agreement to agree that the agreement shall be governed by a law other than English law.”