In Depth

Are Sharia divorces on the way? Experts are sceptical

Some lawyers claim landmark ruling Jewish couple's split could pave the way for Sharia divorces in UK

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DIVORCE cases could be settled by religious laws such as Sharia following a landmark ruling in which a Jewish couple’s separation under rabbinical decree was approved by the High Court this week, The Times claims.

Mr Justice Baker’s decision to approve the anonymous pair’s Beth Din split is thought to be the first time in Britian that a religious court’s ruling has been approved by family judges.

Lawyers have told the Times that the decision could have "far-reaching consequences". James Stewart of London law firm Manches LLP, who acted for the woman in the case, said he believed Islamic courts would be allowed the same "courtesy" if "a Muslim husband and wife wished to have issues referred from the courts to the Sharia courts".

A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain welcomed the case saying: "If it leads to the eventual acceptance of Sharia court divorces, then Muslims will be very encouraged".

But journalist and Islam convert Yvonne Ridley called the focus on Islam "disgraceful" because the story concerned the Beth Din, while legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg suggested the ruling was about a settlement over money and child access rather than the traditional Jewish divorce procedure where a woman is given a ‘get’ to signify the separation. As such, yesterday’s ruling had "nothing to do with Sharia", he said.

The orthodox Jewish couple married in 2006 and had two children. They were living in London when their marriage broke down in 2009, shortly before a planned relocation to Toronto. A dispute over access meant the father, who is a 29-year-old Canadian citizen, began proceedings in court under the Hague Convention on child abduction against the mother, a 26-year-old British woman.

Mr Justice Baker, who agreed to let a senior rabbi at the New York Beth Din, Rabbi Geldzehler, propose a resolution for the couple, cited the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s 2008 speech on Sharia in his judgment, saying: "Citizenship in a secular society should not necessitate the abandoning of religious discipline".

In his ruling, the judge said the decision to allow the New York Beth Din to make a non-binding decision had allowed the former couple's "devout beliefs" to be respected. "The outcome was in keeping with English law whilst achieved by a process rooted in the Jewish culture to which the families belong."

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