Solicitors Regulation Authority endorses Law Society’s sharia wills guidance

The LSS is very disappointed to learn that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has endorsed the Law Society’s recent practice note on “sharia succession rules”.

The LSS is already challenging the Law Society on its decision to issue its practice note. The Law Society refused to answer virtually all the questions in the LSS’s recent open letter (see here), and the LSS is currently awaiting responses to two (non-open) letters it has sent to the Law Society.

The Law Society is the representative body for solicitors in England and Wales (it is occasionally referred to as a trade union), whereas the SRA is the regulator.

The reason the SRA’s endorsement of the Law Society’s practice note is so significant is that, unlike the Law Society, the SRA is a public authority for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and it is fully bound by the public sector equality duty (PSED).

The PSED places a firm statutory duty on the SRA to, amongst other things, advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not, to foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not, and to work in a way that complies with human rights. This duty is at odds with the Law Society’s practice note, which contains guidance that clearly discriminates on the basis of two protected characteristics, gender and religion:

“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 recently issued its own “ethics guidance” on drafting and preparation of wills. The final sentence of that guidance includes a clear endorsement of the Law Society’s guidance:

“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.”

Commenting, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian said:

“Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, things have got much worse.

“For the Law Society to give guidance on sharia law was bad enough, but the stakes in this unnecessary and disturbing game now seem to have been raised even higher: the SRA is a public authority, performing a public function by way of the regulation of solicitors, and it is fully bound by the public sector equality duty. The LSS is appalled that the SRA has so clearly endorsed the Law Society’s discriminatory practice note.” 

The LSS has this morning (5 June 2014) sent an open letter to the SRA asking them to explain their decision to adopt the Law Society’s guidance. You can read it here (PDF) and it is reproduced below:

Mr Paul Philip
Chief Executive
The Solicitors Regulation Authority
The Cube
199 Wharfside Street
Birmingham
B1 1RN

Dear Mr Philip

The SRA’s ethics guidance on “Drafting and preparation of wills”, and the Law Society’s practice note on “Sharia succession rules”

This is an open letter which we have published on our website this morning.

I refer to the SRA’s recent ethics guidance on “Drafting and preparation of wills”. In particular I refer to the very final sentence of that guidance, which states:

“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 to which the SRA’s guidance refers states the following (at section 3.6, paragraph 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”

As you will no doubt be aware, and as the SRA website itself states very clearly on its “Equality Framework” page, the SRA is a public authority for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and it is bound by the public sector equality duty.

As that page of the SRA website correctly states, amongst other things the duty covers religion or belief, and sex, and it requires the SRA in the exercise of its public functions to have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not, to foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not, and to work in a way that complies with human rights.

I would be very grateful if you could answer the following questions:

1. Please explain the process the SRA went through before adopting the Law Society’s guidance on sharia succession rules.

2. Please explain how, in the course of that process regarding adoption of the Law Society’s guidance on sharia succession rules, the SRA discharged its public sector equality duty.

Very importantly, please note that the Lawyers’ Secular Society is in no way challenging the concept of testamentary freedom under the law of England and Wales. The Lawyers’ Secular Society fully understands, and accepts, that testators are free to dispose of their estate as they see fit, subject only to the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. But it is clearly a major step to go from that to saying that the SRA should endorse guidance to solicitors on how to draft wills which give effect to a set of rules which avowedly discriminate on the grounds of gender and religion, as it would be for guidance on writing racist wills, or homophobic wills. Nor is that in any way affected by the fact that the rules in question are religious rules – what matters is their effect, not their provenance. It would be most appreciated if you could focus your response purely on the two questions above, rather than any discussion of testamentary freedom.

I look forward to receiving a substantive response to the questions at the earliest possible opportunity. I am happy to correspond on this matter purely by email.

Yours sincerely

Charlie Klendjian
Solicitor (SRA ID 344649)
Secretary, Lawyers’ Secular Society


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