Oh what a year: LSS Secretary’s Christmas message

By LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian *

It’s been an incredible 12 months for the Lawyers’ Secular Society so I thought I should do the dignified thing and yell about it from the rooftops.

The year started with a bang, with the thorough busting of a de facto blasphemy code.

In January I was a front-row guest on BBC’s The Big Questions, alongside my fellow secularist Maajid Nawaz and my friends Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis of LSE’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society.

Chris and Abhishek were wearing “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts under their tops, and they happily revealed them when the programme’s host invited them to do so.

The programme was filmed a week in advance and I understand the BBC went into something of a tailspin between the filming of the programme and its transmission, as they grappled with that most pressing moral conundrum of our age: whether to show a line drawing of a man with a beard.

Mercifully, the BBC’s lawyers seem to have remembered that the crime of blasphemy had been wiped off our statute books in 2008 and that de facto blasphemy codes have no place either in a secular liberal democracy. The BBC showed the t-shirts, albeit briefly, and they didn’t obscure the images of Mohammed.

Secularism one, Theocracy…nil. You can watch the programme on YouTube here.

I’m very proud that I appeared on the programme where a depiction of Mohammed was shown on British television for the first time ever. There is no more vital freedom than freedom of speech. It is a crucial and non-negotiable condition of a democracy and it is the crucial battlefront of secularism. When freedom of speech dies, all freedom dies with it.

In March the Law Society, which is the representative body for solicitors in England and Wales, went into multiculturalism overdrive and decided to issue formal guidance to solicitors on how to draft “sharia compliant wills”.

The guidance laid out warped, discriminatory advice: non-Muslims were to inherit nothing, as were adopted children and “illegitimate” children (yes, the guidance actually used the term “illegitimate”). As for Muslim women, they had to be content with receiving half of what the menfolk inherited.

The LSS was not in any way challenging the English law principle of testamentary freedom, whereby people can dispose of their assets however they wish as long as they provide for their dependants, but we didn’t feel it was the Law Society’s place to give theological guidance – let alone eye-wateringly discriminatory theological guidance. We were also concerned that the Law Society was giving credibility and respectability to a legal system with a dreadful human rights record and that it was damaging the rule of law.

The LSS was the first organisation to raise the alarm at the Law Society’s decision to rebrand itself as a mosque. My LSS colleague Sadikur Rahman wrote a blog post shortly after publication of the guidance and events snowballed from there.

In April I spoke/shouted at a large protest outside the Law Society’s offices in Chancery Lane alongside human rights and women’s rights campaigners, including the veteran troublemaker Peter Tatchell. You can read my speech here and you can listen to it here.

Also in April I spoke in the House of Lords at the launch of “Sharia Watch UK” and I contributed to their report “Sharia Law: Britain’s Blind Spot”. You can read my speech here.

In June the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which is the regulatory body for solicitors in England and Wales, decided to endorse the Law Society’s sharia practice note. The SRA issued its own “ethics guidance” on the drafting and preparation of wills, the very final sentence of which 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.”

The SRA’s endorsement changed the game. 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.

Again, the LSS was first off the blocks and we raised the alarm. We wrote to the SRA asking them why they thought it was a good idea to promote discrimination, and I’m glad to say in July they withdrew their endorsement. This then put pressure on the Law Society.

Also in July, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission published advice saying it considered gender segregation in universities unlawful. In late 2013 Universities UK, which is the representative body for our universities, had issued guidance saying that speaker events could be gender-segregated if this was driven by the “genuinely-held religious beliefs” of the speaker. I spoke at the protest in December 2013 outside UUK’s offices (you can read my speech here).

Shortly after the protest there was strong condemnation of UUK by the Prime Minister David Cameron, the then-Education Secretary Michael Gove, and the Shadow Business Secretary Chukka Umunna. UUK subsequently withdrew its guidance and I’m delighted that the EHRC finally applied their own seal of disapproval this year.

Also in July I met my MP, Charles Walker, to discuss the Law Society campaign. I was delighted to learn that he was as angry as me. I am very grateful to him for raising the subject in the House of Commons – he was the only MP to do so.

In August, together with representatives from the National Secular Society, I met with the Law Society’s Chief Executive and the head of their equality and diversity committee to discuss the sharia practice note; our protest in April having failed to have the desired effect at this point.

Essentially I was trying to understand why the Law Society was issuing religious guidance and why it was promoting a system of law which the highest court in our land has held to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

I left the meeting as confused as I had entered it – if anything even more so – but the Law Society assured us it would think very carefully about whether to retain the practice note.

In October an LSS campaign which was started as a personal campaign by two LSS members, Peter Fisher MBE and John Butcher, secured a small but significant victory.

Peter and John had been busily challenging the annual judges’ service for over a year, and this October for the first time ever (so far as we are aware) the service was opened up to the press.

Fundamental constitutional changes rarely happen overnight, and so any progress on constitutional issues, however small, is a giant leap. Opening up the judges’ service to the press was significant because transparency itself is a disinfectant. I’m very grateful to Peter and John for all their hard work on this campaign. I can take absolutely no credit myself.

And in November came the biggy: the Law Society withdrew its sharia practice note. It also issued a clear public apology and told us in a letter that it would not be amending or replacing the guidance. I believe this is the first time the Law Society has ever withdrawn a practice note.

The LSS was the only lawyers group (so far as we are aware) to challenge the Law Society’s decision to issue its practice note, and certainly the only lawyers group to challenge the Law Society publicly. I guess all the other lawyers must have been busy.

I am incredibly proud that when sharia appeared at the gates of our legal system it was the LSS that raised the alarm, it was the LSS that played a key role in propping up the gates, and it was a lowly solicitor from Hertfordshire leading the LSS resistance. The LSS has preserved a PDF of the Law Society’s now-withdrawn guidance here (the nasty provisions are at paragraphs 5 and 6 of section 3.6), and you can see a full chronology of the campaign’s key events, media coverage and blog posts here. The legal website Roll on Friday had a particularly irreverent take on events here.

But the good news didn’t stop there. The Law Society also decided to distance itself from sharia more generally by “delisting” the sharia courses that had previously appeared on its website.

To give you an insight into just how uncomfortable the relationship between sharia and the Law Society was becoming, one of these sharia courses on the Law Society’s website contained the following biography of Aina Khan, an English solicitor who is also a proponent of sharia (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.”

For the Law Society to give credence to the idea that sharia councils were in any way “official bodies” was, how shall we say, deeply regrettable. I’m delighted that the Law Society not only removed this biography from its website but decided to delist (basically delete) the sharia courses too.

One amusing sub-plot to the Law Society episode is that the practice note was co-drafted by a solicitor called Jo Summers, who sits on the Law Society’s wills and equity committee. Just under ten years ago I spent the last six months of my two-year training contract in a law firm’s private client department, and my supervisor was the very same Jo Summers. We even co-authored an article on the Gender Recognition Act and its effect on wills (£). Clearly our careers have taken different paths since then. I believe the relevant phrase is “the apple has fallen far from the tree”. I like to think the outcome of the Law Society campaign is testament to the fine training Ms Summers gave me those many moons ago; perhaps she has a different view.

Also in November free speech on campus unfortunately took a knock. I was due to speak at the University of West London about – amongst other things – censorship on campus and the difficulty of discussing Islam. With just 24 hours to go the university decided to cancel the event, as one does. The LSS is currently challenging this decision and we hope to have some good news soon.

Thankfully, in December, a similar LSS event went ahead at Manchester University, despite some significant pressure to cancel the event and to modify it on terms that were not acceptable.

This year the LSS has also given talks to the East London Humanists (twice), the London South Bank University Atheist Society, and the London Atheist Activist Group. We also had stalls at the annual convention of the AHS (National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies), and at a conference about the “oppression and resilience of women”. Thank you very much to everyone who has hosted us and apologies to those groups whose kind invitations we haven’t been able to take up because of time restraints. There’s always next year.

And although the LSS does not provide legal advice, this year we have put LSS members in touch with members of the public and related organisations who have needed legal advice on issues relating to secularism.

Our profile has risen, and so has our membership. The Law Society’s sharia guidance turned out to be the recruiting sergeant we could only dream of.

It’s worth reminding readers that the LSS has zero money and it has zero staff. All LSS members fit their activities around their work/study/family/personal commitments, taking time off work where necessary, and it’s probably for this reason above all else that I am so proud of our achievements this year. We have achieved real, concrete things; the LSS is no talking shop or glorified university debating society.

In my view the above whistle-stop tour of LSS activities represents a reasonable twelve-month return for a penniless, staffless organisation which only relaunched two years ago.

There are some factors which I believe have contributed to our success.

Firstly, the LSS is very clear that its remit is secularism – not atheism or humanism. We have religious members and religious supporters. As lawyers we feel we are well-placed to explain to the legal profession and to the wider public what secularism is and what it is not. The theory is that lawyers are calm and rational people, and capable of explaining things coherently.

Secondly, the LSS is politically neutral. We don’t consider that secularism is owned by the Left or the Right. Secularism can and does appeal to everyone, and all the main political parties have a credit and debit account when it comes to secularism. There is no “pro secularism” party. Our members are drawn from across the political spectrum and they have very different political views away from secularism – but the LSS’s focus is secularism, not the personal politics of its members. It is difficult enough for secularists to achieve their objectives when they focus on secularism; when they bring their personal politics to the table progress becomes an increasingly distant pipe-dream.

The combination of religious neutrality and political neutrality ensures the LSS maintains a razor-like focus on its chosen remit of secularism. We don’t suffer “mission-creep” whereby our focus sloppily moves away from secularism to something else. The general public is already confused witless about secularism. Often our opponents are the cause of this confusion, by deliberately misrepresenting and denigrating secularism at every available opportunity. But unfortunately sometimes secularists are themselves to blame, by drifting from secularism into atheism or humanism, or by bringing general politics into the mix. Keeping a firm grip on our remit is not only important as a means of achieving our objectives; it is important for our credibility as lawyers too. No-one respects a lawyer who sets out to do Task X and ends up doing Task Y.

And thirdly, the LSS values its independence. Lawyers are a funny bunch – they like to know they have maximum freedom of thought and that they are not restrained by external forces. But independence does not mean isolation. Quite the opposite, in fact: independence enables the LSS to maximise its reach by working with individuals and groups where our interests intersect.

I want to close by warmly thanking all my LSS colleagues for their hard work and support this year. It has been a privilege to lead – in the words of the author and journalist Nick Cohen – this “admirable body which represents the best traditions of the English law”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Finally, Merry Christmas – or whatever you want to call it.

* Charlie Klendjian was LSS Secretary and an LSS member from Oct 2012 to Aug 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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