Shariah Law and England.

I have only a few minutes before having to go to work, but everyone has become a legal expert after the Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture yesterday as part of the Temple 2008 series. I was teaching in Bath, so couldn't go, but I was interested to read that Dr Williams thought that 'Sharia law' in some aspects was compatible with 'Christian' law, and that some aspects should be adopted across the UK.

I think that there are some points to make, though I'll write more later. Firstly, of course, there is no such thing as 'UK law'; there is law in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as associated systems of law in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. All differ quite widely in business matters, and in business it is quite common for contracts in Britain or indeed outside to specify that businesses want to be governed by 'English law' since it is more favourable to certain sorts of contract.

It is of course also the case that divorce proceedings, thanks to the EU, which affect citizens of this country but which involve partners or property from other jurisdictions in the EU can be decided according to the laws of the foreign party or property. There's a famous dash, if you are rich, to start divorces in France if you can given the division of property that happens there rather than in England.

So different systems of civil law already coexist within the UK. It is also the case that the UK does have religious courts, and religious laws. It is not possible to blaspheme against a Catholic or a Jew, for instance, but it is against Anglicanism. Anglican Church courts already hear employment claims connected with their contemners and ecclesiasts every day, and have long been a source of income at the bar. The General medical Council--indeed any professional body--whilst not religious can strike off doctors and always proceeds as a tribunal if it does.

The UK also has non Christian forms of dispute resolution which are recognised. The jewish beth Din, for instance, may even have been the courts that gave rise to the jury system nearly a thousand years ago; I had a very engaged student on a summer school once who was a lawyer in new York in his spare time and who uncovered the documents in Christ Church that seemed to suggest the importance of the Beth Din at the time of the expulsion of the jews as giving a model to jury-based systems.

Some of these non-secular or non-Christian forms of civil arbitration are up and running to a great deal of criticism, such as the Somali Gar in London, or the various civil arbitrators that apply Hadith, Siri and Quranic law and the interpretation thereof.

The thing is, though, that an awful lot of people don't distinguish between civil and criminal law, or indeed forms of civil law. Family law (which social workers have made a bit of a mess of, and which is militantly secular) is very different from probate law, or from law relating to contracts and dispute resolution. There are times when I want my business disputes resolved by an independent arbitrator; there have been times when I would be quite happy to have an imam turn up at the office of someone who owed me money with a bazooka or whatever it is they use.

Mortgages, a very serious form of contract, can be had on Islamic terms in this country and have been for some time. Few people take them up, but there is obviously no one form of mortgage nor would it help anyone if there was. Interest rates and terms vary all over the place.

I might point out that the immigration and naturalisation procedures of the UK are very much concerned with divorces and marriages within other systems, and in matters of education England does have the state funded religious schools. I went to one, and a good place it was before the Office of standards in education shut it in a fit of antireligious pique.

An awful lot of people also have a visceral reaction against the whole idea of sharia. I did, a few weeks ago, because that body of law is frequently associated with dark age practices and has been somewhat corrupted by its association with fascistic regimes and very traditional, violent interpretations of its codes. It also tends to appal those who value the equality of women, due process and natural justice because some of its adherents have no clue about any justice that is actually fair. It isn't however, outside of criminal law, necessarily bad for an adult to agree to be bound by at least the chance of living by its terms.

That's not a get-out. People choose freely how to live a lot of the time, as adults. One of the things about very old european states is that they are a sort of stew, rather than the American melting-pot that has become the favourite model of many.

My worry, however, is that the Islamist agenda is going, in a confrontation based on visceral reactions, to be imposed on the whole muslim community and then the introduction of Islamic law, rather than the recognition of contractual agreements about property, will effectively create apartheid.

I'd be sad if a system that is pootering along did have to be shut and replaced with a uniform legal way of doing things. It would probably be impossible to pass a pure system of law that didn't upset businesses, muslims, anglicans, jews, somalis, hindus, immigrants, and bankers anyway. So it is not going to happen. What is going to happen is an overheated debate.

Which of course I will be joining later. I'm off for a day's wage.


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