Speaking engagement with London Atheist Activist Group

LAAGLSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian will be speaking to the London Atheist Activist Group on Wednesday 10 September 2014.

This will be a broad talk about the work of the LSS generally, with a focus on free speech and also the LSS’s ongoing campaign against the Law Society’s practice note on “sharia succession rules”.

The talk will take place at The Devereux pub, 20 Devereux Court, Essex Street, The Strand, London WC2R 3JJ from 7pm to 10.30pm. More details are here.

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In support of Baroness Cox

Baroness CoxThe following is reproduced with kind permission of Sharia Watch UK:

Baroness Caroline Cox, a cross-bench member of the UK’s House of Lords, has re-introduced her Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill in June of this year.

The Bill had another First Reading in the Lords on the 11th of June, and will have a second reading in the autumn.

Baroness Cox said:

“The growth of Sharia Courts and Councils in the UK is cause for deep concern. They inherently promote gender discrimination, inflicting suffering on women which would make our Suffragettes turn in their graves; and they threaten liberal democracy’s fundamental principle of One Law For All.

“To raise awareness of the seriousness of this situation, I have introduced a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Lords [Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill] which had an excellent Second Reading on 19 October 2012 with support from all sides of the House, but was opposed by the Government on the grounds that every citizen has full and free access to the laws of the land. 

“This is manifestly untrue as many Muslim women are ignorant of their legal rights and live in very closed communities with tremendous pressure from families not to seek ‘outside’ professional help which would bring ‘Shame’ on the community.”

The first time the Bill was debated in Parliament, it received much support, and the debate can be read in full here.

Sharia Watch UK unequivocally supports Baroness Cox and will do all that we can to assist her in the passage of her Bill.

It is vital that MPs in the House of Commons are informed of the issues surrounding sharia law in the UK, and of the importance of Lady Cox’s Bill.

We ask therefore that all people who are concerned about the growth and use of sharia law in the UK contact their MP and ask that he/she consider supporting the Bill in the House of Commons.  You can find out who your MP is here.

There is information on this website that you can use to inform your MP, or you can contact Sharia Watch at contact@shariawatch.org.uk and we would be happy to help.

You can read more on Baroness Cox and her Bill here, here, and here.

The Lawyers’ Secular Society is pleased to echo Sharia Watch UK’s sentiments by unequivocally supporting Baroness Cox’s Bill and being prepared to assist her.

Sharia Watch UK was launched in the House of Lords in April 2014. LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian delivered a speech (here) and contributed to the report “Sharia Law – Britain’s Blind Spot” which was sent to all parliamentarians in the UK.

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By keeping its sharia guidance, is the Law Society fit to represent solicitors?

Law Society

By LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian

It’s been over four months since the Law Society published its practice note on sharia succession rules. Since then there has been some progress but unfortunately there is a good deal still to be done, as this post will demonstrate.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)

The Law Society is the representative body for solicitors in England and Wales, and it is often referred to as a trade union. The SRA is the profession’s regulatory body and unlike the Law Society it is a public authority for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and it is fully bound by the public sector equality duty.

In its wisdom the SRA decided to endorse the Law Society’s sharia guidance when it issued its own wills guidance on 6 May 2014. In the very final sentence of its own guidance the SRA said:

“If you are acting for clients for whom sharia succession rules may be relevant you will find the Law Society’s practice note on the subject helpful.”

As those familiar with this campaign will know only too well, the Law Society’s practice note contains guidance which specifically discriminates against women and non-Muslims (at section 3.6):

“The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class”

“Non-Muslims may not inherit at all”

The LSS was the first organisation to call attention to the SRA’s endorsement of the Law Society’s practice note. We wrote an open letter to the SRA on 5 June 2014 asking for an explanation of its decision. On 11 July 2014 the SRA withdrew its endorsement: it updated its wills guidance and deleted the final sentence that referred to sharia.

The LSS pressed the SRA repeatedly for a written response to our letter and we eventually managed to obtain a letter from the SRA’s Chief Executive Paul Philip confirming the SRA withdrew the reference “given the concerns that have been raised”.

And this is the greatest tangible success to date on this campaign: the deletion of one sentence, from one website, and the receipt of one letter confirming it. Yes, this is what secularists classify as a success. Pretty sad, isn’t it?

In many ways it’s embarrassing and depressing to celebrate such small events but make no mistake, the withdrawal of the SRA’s endorsement was highly significant. For a public authority to endorse discrimination, and sharia, was shocking. Withdrawing its endorsement was therefore the only sensible course of action open to the SRA – although the SRA maintains in its letter to the LSS that it wasn’t endorsing the Law Society’s practice note. In my book, though, saying to an entire profession, “you will find this useful” sounds more or less like an endorsement.

Anyway, let’s not get sidetracked by the technicalities of what does and does not constitute endorsement. The important point here is that the SRA dipped its toes into piping hot sharia waters, quickly concluded it had made a huge mistake, and leapt out with something resembling dignity. I give them credit for that. If only the Law Society were as self-aware.

The Law Society

The LSS has challenged the Law Society in two open letters, here and here. Sadly, in both its responses, here and here, the then-President of the Law Society Nicholas Fluck was determined to give the LSS a crash course in the English law principle of testamentary freedom, and he simply ignored virtually all the questions in our second letter.

Throughout this campaign the LSS has never challenged the principle of testamentary freedom and we specifically told the Law Society in our second letter that we were aware of and were not challenging that principle.

The LSS fully accepts that people can be as bigoted and discriminatory as they want in their wills, and that the only legal restriction on testators is that they must provide for their dependants in accordance with the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

The LSS’s concerns with the practice note are that the Law Society is giving guidance on an area that is simply outside of its remit (theology); that it is endorsing discrimination; and that it is giving sharia the credibility and respectability of a legal discipline within our jurisdiction, not only in the area of wills and succession but more generally too.

I was so disappointed by the responses of the Law Society President to the LSS’s open letters that I submitted a formal complaint to the Law Society on 18 May 2014. Mr. Fluck responded on 17 June 2014. I am bringing this correspondence into the public domain as there is much to be concerned about in the reply.

Firstly, note the tone of Mr. Fluck’s response to my point on testamentary freedom below. By the time I submitted my formal complaint I had been forced by the Law Society to over-emphasise the issue of testamentary freedom, by saying:

“I made it very clear in my letter of 24 April 2014 (at paragraph 8), that the LSS is aware of and is not challenging the concept of testamentary freedom under English law, and that there is no need to explain that people are free to leave their money as they like, subject of course to the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. Despite this, you talked once again about testamentary freedom in your letter of 8 May 2014, as indeed you also did in your previous letter of 31 March 2014.

“I say once again: the LSS, and I, are aware of and are not challenging the concept of testamentary freedom under English law, and so there is no need to explain that people are free to leave their money as they like, subject of course to the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. Please take this on board when responding to this formal complaint.”

Mr. Fluck responded:

“Thank you for also going to such lengths to explain to me your understanding of the concept of testamentary freedom.”

Charming. Perhaps if Mr. Fluck had not constantly diverted the discussion away from the Law Society’s role in promoting sharia towards a general legal discussion of testamentary freedom I would not have had to repeatedly explain that I understood the concept.

Mr. Fluck avoided addressing satisfactorily one of the key concerns that I and many secularists have. Even though testators can lawfully be as religiously bigoted and sexist as they wish, it most certainly doesn’t follow that the Law Society should issue formal guidance on how to achieve that discrimination. At point 5 of my complaint letter I sought to make an analogy by asking:

“Would the Law Society issue similar guidance on how to write wills for people wanting to follow rules which called for the distribution of a testator’s assets on a basis which discriminated on the grounds of race, or on a homophobic basis, or against people with a disability?”

Mr. Fluck responded:

“The Law Society would not issue a practice note to its members dealing with the preparation of wills which amounted to unlawful and/or invalid responses to instructions from a client.”

Confused? I am. Not only does Mr. Fluck not answer this vital question, but if anything he indicates that he doesn’t understand testamentary freedom because there would be nothing “unlawful” or “invalid” in a solicitor drawing up a will that was racist/homophobic/discriminatory towards the disabled if that is in fact what the client instructed the solicitor to do.

But it is the following response which is perhaps the most troubling, because it demonstrates very neatly the scale of the problem that the sharia practice note poses. It also demonstrates the entire struggle of secularism in one nutshell. At point 6 of my complaint I asked:

“And if the Law Society would not provide guidance in those latter cases [racist/homophobic/anti-disabled wills], what was the difference here?”

Mr. Fluck responded:

“The difference is self evident.”

No, actually the difference is not self-evident to me and I imagine it is not self evident to many of my fellow secularists either. Bigotry is bigotry, misogyny is misogyny, sexism is sexism and discrimination is discrimination – whether its driving force is religious or non-religious. As long as the Law Society cannot grasp this, we face an uphill struggle to get this wretched practice note withdrawn.

Witness here the complete breakdown of logic in Mr. Fluck’s responses in points 1 and 10:

[1] “…our practice notes…are issued as guidance to our members.”

[10] “The Law Society has not issued guidance on “Sharia law”.”

And finally, how about this for avoiding the question. At point 12 of my complaint I asked:

“Would the Law Society issue guidance that explicitly discriminated against Muslims on the basis there was “demand” for it and/or pursuant to its policy of equality and diversity?”

This was another key question. If the Law Society can produce formal guidance that explicitly discriminates against non-Muslims then it is surely reasonable to ask if it would produce guidance discriminating against Muslims.

Mr Fluck’s response:

“Not applicable.”

Equality and Diversity

There are two points to make here, both equally depressing.

Firstly, how on earth did the Law Society’s sharia practice note manage to break through its equality and diversity firewall? How did the Law Society, which as it states on its own website is proudly “committed to principles of equality and diversity”, conclude it was a good idea to give guidance on sharia, a religious code under which women, non-Muslims, atheists, ex-Muslims, homosexuals and not to mention Muslims themselves are routinely subjected to the most appalling treatment that humans have managed to think of? Just how can the Law Society conclude that issuing guidance which clearly discriminates against women and non-Muslims is in any way consistent with its supposed commitment to equality and diversity?

And secondly, as anyone who has tried to challenge sharia will tell you, sharia is often specifically justified by its proponents and its apologists (or “useful idiots”, as the latter are often called) by reference to the principle of equality and diversity, or human rights language more generally. At the very beginning of this campaign, for example, the then-President of the Law Society justified the decision to produce the guidance by saying “we live in a diverse multi-faith, multi-cultural society.”

Sharia is not in any way an expression of equality and diversity, and we must resist any attempt to justify it in such scandalous terms.

One has to admire the Law Society’s attempts to keep everyone happy. I’m sure in its own mind it has convinced itself it is doing precisely that. On 15 May 2014 it issued a press release celebrating Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Trans diversity in the legal profession at the Pride in London Parade. Good on the Law Society, I say. The then-President led the Legal Pride Group and said:

“Equality for all under the law is something the legal sector is passionate about and many of our members as part of their normal working day will challenge unjust decisions and defend those who face discrimination.”

Fine words, but I’m not sure how comfortably the Law Society’s honourable stance on LGBT rights sits with its endorsement of sharia.

As I mentioned in this post at the end of March: just 72 hours after another former President of the Law Society and the current chair of its equality and diversity committee, Lucy Scott-Moncrief, had called attention to the “woeful underuse” of women’s talent in the legal profession on the front page of the print version of the Law Society Gazette in a piece called “Brain drain” fear as diversity stagnates, the Law Society produced its sharia succession rules. Barely one issue of the Law Society Gazette rolls off the printing press without an article raising the alarm at how few women have been made £1m-a-year partners at MegaFirm LLP. And yet the Law Society chooses to endorse a mediaeval religious code under which women are often deprived of the very right to be educated at all, and treated as property.

The Law Society’s approach to “equality and diversity” is a shambolic, embarrassing, incoherent mess.

Sharia training courses

Sadly, issuing formal guidance to its members on sharia was not enough for the Law Society to tick its equality and diversity boxes and show the world just how trendy it was.

On 24 June 2014 the Law Society ran a course called “Developing services for Muslim clients – an introduction to Islamic rules for small firms”. My LSS colleague Sadikur Rahman attended and you can read his blog post about it here. It makes for depressing reading.

But it gets even worse. The Law Society has a host of related courses in the pipeline:

What’s next? Well here are my suggestions:

  • Sharia and gay pride: keep it quiet!
  • Sharia and free speech: what not to say (or draw!)

There is reference to the training provider “MBL Seminars” in the first three links above, but in any case those three courses still appear loudly and proudly on the Law Society’s website with a Law Society logo at the top. And on the fourth link the training provider is clearly stated as “The Law Society”.

And there is one thing in particular to be worried about, and which shows just how little understanding the Law Society has of this topic. In the first link above, to the family course, there is reference to Aina Khan, a long-standing advocate of sharia. In her speaker biography on that page of the Law Society website is the following wording (my emphasis added):

“Aina frequently works with courts, Sharia Councils and other official bodies on legal issues affecting Muslim and Asian communities and is frequently invited to appear on TV, Radio and the press in the UK.”

“Other official bodies”? Excuse me? For the Law Society, intentionally or unintentionally, to help disseminate the idea that a sharia council is in any way an “official body” is nothing short of a disgrace. The Law Society would presumably say in response to this that it is not responsible for writing the speaker biography. Well it is responsible for reading it before publishing it on its website. Perhaps in the meantime the Law Society should rename the course tagline to “problems not solutions”.

The international dimension

There is an elephant in the room here, and we do ourselves and future generations immense harm by ignoring it: Islamism is on the march and so, inevitably, is sharia. The Islamist group ISIS, which is merrily decapitating and crucifying its way through the Middle East (yes, people still get crucified today), has warned women to wear the full veil or face punishment. And recently ISIS gave Iraqi Christians in Mosul the following “choice”:

  • convert to Islam
  • pay a protection tax (known as jizya)
  • be killed

Now with that in mind please read, just one more time, the following sections of the Law Society’s practice note:

“The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class”

“Non-Muslims may not inherit at all”

Can you join the dots here? Can you see the bigger picture? The level of harm may be different but it is precisely the same ideology, and the same religion, at work. To not recognise that is to consciously choose to commit intellectual and factual suicide.

I wonder what the Law Society’s opinion on the ISIS ultimatum in Mosul would be. Perhaps the Law Society would see it as an expression of equality and diversity as there was a “choice”? Or perhaps the Law Society would cobble together a course called Sharia tax solutions: everything you need to know about jizya in a hurry.

Isn’t it comforting to know that if ISIS ever get to England, the Law Society has started the process of making our legal system acceptable for them?

I don’t expect the Law Society to cure all the world’s problems but I do expect the Law Society not to give sharia credibility and respectability. I do expect the Law Society not to endorse and encourage discrimination. I do expect the Law Society to do everything in its power to assert the dominance and superiority of English law in our jurisdiction. That would send a loud message to this country and indeed beyond these shores. Ideally I would like to see the Law Society call attention to the harm sharia manages to do in this country even though sharia does not have the status of law. I would like the Law Society to highlight the problem of sharia councils, for example. But if it won’t do that, and it’s probably safe to assume it won’t, is it really too much to ask of the Law Society that it doesn’t actively promote sharia law? As a secularist I have trained myself over a number of years to have the lowest possible expectations, and yet I am constantly disappointed.

Where do we go now?

The Law Society’s behaviour has been raised in Parliament by the Conservative MP Charles Walker (here, here and here).

Private Eye – a publication I often think of as democracy’s last line of defence – has recently run three pieces critical of the Law Society’s practice note (here, here and here). I am particularly pleased at Private Eye’s decision to pick up this campaign because that publication is like a dog with a bone.

As we have seen, the SRA has withdrawn its endorsement (which wasn’t an endorsement, remember, even though it was).

And as LSS Secretary I even have something to thank the Law Society for: its sharia guidance has been excellent for attracting new members to the LSS. More than any other secularist issue, certain parts of the legal profession are incredibly concerned about sharia. If you’re interested in joining the LSS please visit this page, but please be patient while we deal with a backlog, thank you.

The Law Society is increasingly isolated. It is vital that anyone who is concerned about the Law Society’s practice note makes their voice known. You can contact your MP, you can contact the Law Society (here, here or on Twitter @TheLawSociety), and you can sign the LSS petition calling for withdrawal of the practice note.

And rest assured, the LSS will continue to challenge the Law Society.

Is the Law Society fit to represent solicitors?

Over ten years ago, when I was about to start law school in Chester, my fellow students and I had to demonstrate to the Law Society that we were of sufficiently good character to join the profession, by submitting letters from referees.

Well it seems we have come full circle. It is now the Law Society that must demonstrate to me, to my fellow solicitors and to countless others that it is fit to be the representative body for solicitors in England and Wales. It can only do that by withdrawing its sharia practice note, immediately.

Even though the Law Society’s guidance does not change the legal status of sharia, it changes the perception of the legal status of sharia. For that reason, if nothing else, the decision to issue the practice note represents a monumental misjudgement on the part of the Law Society. The Law Society has undermined the rule of law.

It is not acceptable for the Law Society, or politicians, or commentators, to focus merely on whether the Law Society’s guidance is lawful. The guidance is grossly immoral and not in keeping with this country’s proud record on equalities, and that is reason enough for withdrawal. If the Law Society had issued racist guidance no-one would be throwing their arms up in defeat and pronouncing with a pathetic air of resignation, “well, I suppose there’s nothing illegal about it”. This is the analogy we must make with the sharia practice note.

For every day that passes with the Law Society’s practice note in place I feel like resigning in disgrace from the profession I set my sights on joining when I was fifteen years old.

The Law Society’s decision to issue a practice note on a barbaric, inhumane, mediaeval religious code which has been and continues today to be the source of so much human depravity and misery makes me want to scream, to cry, to vomit. I suppose, in the Law Society’s parlance, its practice note evokes diverse feelings within me.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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Good news: EHRC condemns gender segregation

Gender SegregationThe Lawyers’ Secular Society has welcomed the news that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) views gender segregation of university and campus events as unlawful. The only exception relates to religious worship and practice. You can read the EHRC’s advice here.

In November 2013 Universities UK (UUK), the representative body for universities in this country, published guidance for universities declaring that gender segregation was permitted for “genuinely held religious beliefs”. This was in response to the increasing regularity of gender-segregated events organised by Islamic societies on campus. UUK had adopted the following reasoning:

“On the face of the case study, assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.”

The LSS strongly condemned UUK’s guidance and shortly afterwards the LSS took part in a protest outside UUK’s offices in Tavistock Square, London. You can read LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian’s speech here. The protest attracted widespread media coverage and UUK were strongly criticised by the Prime Minister David Cameron, the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, and the Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna. UUK promptly withdrew its guidance pending a review.

Cambridge University student Radha Bhatt, instructing Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors, also challenged the legality of UUK’s guidance on the basis it is a public authority for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and bound by the public sector equality duty. You can read the letter here.

The EHRC’s advice states:

“Gender segregation is not permitted in any academic meetings or at events, lectures or meetings provided for students, or at events attended by members of the public or employees of the university or the students’ union.”

UUK has updated its guidance to take account of the EHRC’s advice. You can read it here.

Commenting, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian said:

“We welcome the EHRC’s advice whilst at the same time remarking, as we have done in the past, how depressing it is to be fighting battles that have already been won.

“I am very proud that the LSS was involved in this campaign. If UUK’s original guidance had gone unchallenged that would have set a terrible precedent in our universities and our public spaces generally.

“We’ll see how far Islamic societies try to stretch the definition of religious worship and practice but for the time being, we are generally happy with the EHRC’s advice.”

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Sharia training course, anyone?

By LSS member Sadikur Rahman

Not satisfied with issuing guidance on sharia inheritance and succession rules, the Law Society it seems is now even more enthusiastic about sharia law than we previously thought. Clearly, none of the criticism it has faced has led to a re-think.

It held a talk on 24 June 2014 called “Developing services for Muslim clients – an introduction to Islamic rules for small firms”The Law Society was very keen to ensure its members (or those who attended the talk) knew how to apply sharia law provisions for clients who may request such a service.

The talk focused on three areas: wills and succession; Islamic finance; and marriage, divorce and child custody. It was led by a panel of senior lawyers who seemed to have quite a lot of knowledge of the intricacies of sharia law, although it must be said not a particularly “reformist” one.

From a secular perspective I do not see a huge problem with Islamic finance and the products which are being offered by financial institutions as “sharia compliant”. Indeed the talk focused on what that might mean and highlighted the fact that so-called “scholars” (who the speakers seemed to have a very high opinion of) might have divergent views on what is “sharia compliant”.  As long as these products are available to all, then they are simply another form of bond or financial transaction not very different from any other. The proponents of Islamic finance try to argue that it is a form of ethical finance, so for example there would be no investments in gambling, alcohol or pornography. This really is no different from many other “ethical” products/banking services currently in the system. On the whole the products offered such as Islamic mortgages or car finance add an amount to be repaid in addition to the capital sum, which seems to be roughly the same as if interest were charged although of course it is not called that.

It is far more concerning, however, when sharia moves into the personal realm of family life. The debate about sharia compliant wills has been going on for a while, and despite all the criticism it has faced the Law Society do not seem in the least bit concerned that discriminatory practices are being endorsed. It seems to have been accepted by the panel that the sharia rules in relation to succession are discriminatory, again highlighting that, contrary to what many Muslim reformers might argue, there is a long way to go before sharia law is reformed.  The panel’s point of view was that although it is discriminatory, as we have freedom of testamentary disposition it does not matter that it is discriminatory because people can behave in such a manner anyway in relation to their assets. The right to freedom of testamentary disposition is used as an argument in favour of promoting these services.

What I feel is missed, is that for Muslims or at least those Muslims who feel very strongly about their religion, it is not a choice as to whether to follow sharia or not: they must follow it. If the service is offered, Muslims may feel compelled to use these services as part of their religious obligations. Surely, this is in fact taking away their freedom of testamentary disposition. These rules are sanctioned by the Quran – there is no freedom for Muslims to distribute their assets otherwise. The only part which is in any way similar to an “English” will is the “freely disposable third”. However, that can only be given to charities and not to other members of the family such as a daughter who may have been disinherited by the rules.

By promoting these services for Muslims in England and Wales, they are offering the prospect for Muslims to live according to a different set of rules than other people. From the Law Society’s point of view it’s simply a matter of choice, but for Muslims, it may not be a matter of choice; in fact the option to choose is being taken away from them, especially if one goes to a solicitor who then tells them their will may not be sharia compliant. I accept that people can discriminate in their wills anyway, but why promote it or bring it to people’s attention?

The talk then ventured into even more worrying territory, such as how sharia law views marriage, divorce and child custody. It was made clear that Muslim women can request a divorce from their husband or the sharia council, but it wasn’t made clear that a man need not request anybody’s permission to divorce his wife. In keeping with the tone of the talk that little bit of fundamental discrimination and inequality was ironed over or studiously ignored. The talk focused on the kind of proofs a wife may need to obtain a divorce and also tackled the “straw man argument” that apparently everyone thinks Muslim men can divorce at will, as if that, rather than the fundamental inequality between men and women was a cause for concern. We were told that this was not the case and in fact the couple should wait a month before each pronunciation of divorce.

With mediation being encouraged by the family courts and becoming the way forward to resolve all marital disputes, it is inevitable that sharia councils and the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal will step in to offer these services in a sharia law setting. Firms approached by Muslim clients will be able to offer their services to represent them at these tribunals. This, I fear, will lead to the operation of a parallel system of law – used solely by Muslims, albeit nominally under the aegis of English law.

Finally, we were advised on the rights of divorcing couples in relation to children. It was pointed out very clearly that all things being normal – no abuse, mental illness, etc – the sharia law position is that children will go to the mother until the age of 7, and thereafter return to the father. It was said the family courts ought to take this into consideration. If someone went to a sharia council to mediate on this, that is the advice they would be given. No thought, it seems, is being given to the fundamental principle in English family law that the interests of the child are absolutely paramount.

Most worryingly the panel seemed completely unaware of the very relevant case of EM (Lebanon) (FC) (Appellant) (FC) –v Secretary of State for the Home Department (Respondent) 2008.

The case concerned an appeal by a divorced mother to be allowed to remain in the UK on the basis that if she were forced to return to Lebanon her right to family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights would be breached, because of the impact of sharia child custody rules on her and her family. The Lords agreed with her. It is I think worth quoting the relevant paragraphs from Lord Hope in full, as it a clear statement of the incompatibility of certain sharia laws with human rights (emphasis added):

5. There is however one aspect of this case which I have found particularly difficult. The appellant came to this country as a fugitive from Shari’a law. Her son had reached the age of seven when, under the system that regulates the custody of a child of that age under Shari’a law in Lebanon, his physical custody would pass by force of law to his father or another male member of his family. Any attempt by her to retain custody of him there would be bound to fail. This is simply because the law dictates that a mother has no right to the custody of her child after that age. She may or may not be allowed what has been described as visitation. That would give her access to her son during supervised visits to a place where she could see him. But under no circumstances would his custody remain with her. The close relationship that exists between mother and child up to the age of custodial transfer cannot survive under that system of law where, as in this case, the parents of the child are no longer living together when the child reaches that age. There is a real risk in all these cases that the very essence of the family life that mother and child have shared together up to that date will be destroyed or nullified.

6.  This system was described by counsel during the argument as arbitrary and discriminatory. So it is, if it is to be measured by the human rights standards that we are obliged to apply by the Convention. The mutual enjoyment by parent and child of each other’s company is a fundamental element of family life. Under our law non-discrimination is a core principle for the protection of human rights. The fact is however that Shari’a law as it is applied in Lebanon was created by and for men in a male dominated society. The place of the mother in the life of a child under that system is quite different under that law from that which is guaranteed in the Contracting States by article 8 of the Convention read in conjunction with article 14. There is no place in it for equal rights between men and women. It is, as Lord Bingham points out, the product of a religious and cultural tradition that is respected and observed throughout much of the world. But by our standards the system is arbitrary because the law permits of no exceptions to its application, however strong the objections may be on the facts of any given case. It is discriminatory too because it denies women custody of their children after they have reached the age of custodial transfer simply because they are women. That is why the appellant removed her child from that system of law and sought protection against its effects in this country.

The case law is therefore quite clear. Why then was this talk advising us what the sharia law was in relation to these areas of law? It was not simply giving information – which would be understandable. I would even understand it if the talk was giving guidance on say the law in Gulf states or Egyptian law or Bangladeshi law which all have elements of sharia law in them and which one could quite easily point to, by reference to statutes. Indeed there are many clients, for example British Bangladeshis, who would benefit from guidance and advice about Bangladeshi law. Plenty of firms operate in the Middle East and so need to be aware of the laws in those countries. Even if it is based on sharia law, any such country guidance would be based on clear law and statute – not a nebulous concept of “sharia law”.  The point being that the laws in those countries may not tally with an agreed version of sharia law as there is no such thing, but would nonetheless be a more useful piece of guidance.

So again why is the Law Society doing this? It intends to have more detailed seminars in the future.  I feel it is another example of national identities and cultures being subsumed into a stronger religious identity. It seems to me that the Law Society is developing and promoting sharia law because it has been lobbied by groups wanting to promote sharia law.  It was positively encouraging the listeners to be aware of these rules so they could advise their Muslim clients when preparing wills, prenuptial agreements or divorce settlements whether financial or in relation to children.

I found the tone of the talk to be one of an unquestioning belief that sharia rules are worthy of being considered law. Sharia is not law, it should not become law and it should not be given the credibility of being considered as law. If people want to live according to what they consider sharia law in the UK they can do so, as far as is legally possible in the civil matters stated above and they can get advice from the mosque and the internet. It should not, however, be the job of the Law Society to advise us what “sharia law” is.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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Update: SRA letter confirming withdrawal of sharia endorsement

The Lawyers’ Secular Society has now received written confirmation from the Solicitors Regulation Authority confirming withdrawal of the reference in their recent wills guidance to the Law Society’s practice note on “sharia succession rules”. The letter, dated 15 July 2014, is here (PDF).

On 5 June 2014 the LSS wrote an open letter to the SRA, which is the regulatory body for solicitors in England and Wales, asking it to explain its decision to endorse the Law Society’s sharia practice note of 13 March 2014. The SRA is a public authority for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and is bound by the public sector equality duty. The Law Society’s practice contains guidance which is fundamentally discriminatory towards women and non-Muslims.

On 11 July 2014 the SRA’s wills guidance was updated, with the reference to the Law Society’s practice note having been removed.

In its letter the SRA says that references to Law Society practice notes “are regularly attached to our guidance and are not an endorsement of the contents”. The letter goes on to say:

“However, given the concerns that have been raised in relation to the inclusion of the reference to the practice note, the reference has now been removed from the appendix to the SRA guidance note.”

The letter closes by saying:

“In removing the reference to the Law Society practice note, the SRA does not accept it has been in breach of any duty under the Equality Act 2010 and the decision to remove the reference should not be taken as any comment or inference as to the Law Society’s practice note.”

The Law Society’s practice note remains in place and the LSS continues to challenge it.

Commenting, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian said:

“It was important for the LSS to receive written confirmation from the regulator for solicitors in England and Wales that it was wrong to incorporate a reference to sharia succession rules in its wills guidance.

“It remains the view of the LSS that the SRA’s original reference to the sharia succession rules did constitute an endorsement. The SRA wording was: “If you are acting for clients for whom sharia succession rules may be relevant you will find the Law Society’s practice note on the subject helpful.” Clearly the views of the LSS and the SRA differ on whether this constitutes an endorsement, but it is now an academic point.

“Regardless of the SRA’s view on whether the reference breached the Equality Act 2010, the letter sends a strong message to public authorities that they should not be endorsing, or being seen to endorse, sharia law. The written confirmation of withdrawal sends a powerful and reassuring message to the legal profession and the public at large.

“The SRA has been careful not to make life uncomfortable for its colleagues at the Law Society, but the reality is that the SRA’s withdrawal of its endorsement increases quite considerably the pressure on the Law Society, and its isolation. The LSS can assure all those who are concerned about this practice note that it will continue to press vigorously for its removal by the Law Society.

“For the time being, though, we welcome the SRA’s withdrawal and we are pleased that good sense has prevailed.”

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Good news: Solicitors Regulation Authority withdraws sharia endorsement

The Lawyers’ Secular Society has welcomed the news that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has today (11 July 2014) withdrawn its endorsement of the Law Society’s recent practice note on “sharia succession rules”.

On 6 May 2014 the SRA issued ethics guidance on drafting and preparation of wills. The very final sentence of that guidance stated:

“If you are acting for clients for whom sharia succession rules may be relevant you will find the Law Society’s practice note on the subject helpful.”

The Law Society’s practice note, which remains in place, states:

“The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class”

“Non-Muslims may not inherit at all”

The SRA is the regulatory body for solicitors in England and Wales, whereas the Law Society is the representative body. The SRA’s endorsement of the Law Society’s practice note was particularly troubling given that the SRA is a public authority for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and is fully subject to the public sector equality duty.

The LSS was the first organisation to draw attention to the SRA’s endorsement of the Law Society’s practice note and sent an open letter to the SRA asking it to explain its actions here (PDF).

The SRA’s ethics guidance on drafting and preparation of wills has now been updated, with the final sentence that referred to the Law Society’s sharia practice note having been deleted.

The Law Society’s practice note on sharia succession rules unfortunately remains in place, and the LSS continues to challenge it.

Commenting, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian said:

“Clearly the SRA has seen the error of its ways and we welcome its decision to withdraw its endorsement of the Law Society’s practice note. This sends an important message to the public, to the legal profession and indeed to the rest of the world.

“Not only was the SRA’s decision to endorse the sharia practice note troubling, but so too was the method in which it did so. There was no accompanying press release and the endorsement came in the very final sentence of lengthy general guidance on the drafting and preparation of wills.

“Our attention now turns once again to the Law Society and we very much hope that the SRA’s decision will lead to a serious rethink of policy at Chancery Lane. It is confusing to the public and the legal profession for two closely-related and key institutions within our legal system to have such different views on a matter of such importance to human rights generally, and female equality more specifically.”

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Speaking engagement with East London Humanists – Trojan Horse

LSS member Sadikur Rahman will be speaking to the East London Humanists about the recent Trojan Horse controversy affecting various schools in Birmingham.

Sadikur was brought up in Birmingham and is familiar with some of the schools involved. He is a school governor and a very active member of the LSS, contributing regular blog posts to this website.

The Trojan Horse discussion is on Monday 14 July 2014 from 7.30pm to 9.00pm at Wanstead Library, London E11.

Further details here.

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