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07/02/2018 By: Sara Hanna
Last week, the Home Office published an independent review of how sharia law was being applied in England and Wales. The review recommends that Muslim couples must undergo a civil marriage alongside a religious ceremony in order to give the couple (but in particular, wives) increased legal protection.
Currently, an Islamic marriage in the UK (a nikah) is not a valid marriage recognised by English law. Without a civil marriage alongside it, this means the couple do not have the same rights and protections that other married couples benefit from (for example, tax and pension benefits). The couple are treated as cohabitees meaning, on separation, they do not have the same entitlements as a divorcing couple and cannot claim a share of their spouse’s assets or any ongoing financial support from them (with the exception of claims in relation to any children).
Another consequence is that the English courts can only divorce couples who have been validly married. Where a Muslim couple is not entitled to a civil divorce, they must formally end their marriage through the sharia councils. The review found that almost all those using sharia councils were women who were seeking an Islamic divorce. A number of concerns were identified with how the councils were working including the complexity and lack of transparency around applying for an Islamic divorce, the lack of consistency in the application of sharia law by the councils and that the councils were ruling on matters outside of their jurisdiction including child arrangements and domestic violence. The review also highlighted the lack of awareness that there was that the councils are decision-making bodies only and that their decisions cannot be enforced in the courts.
It is to be hoped that the recommendations will, at the very least, highlight the issues surrounding the status of Islamic marriages.
The Mills & Reeve family team are experienced in advising Muslim clients both on marriage and on separation. As an Arabic-speaking family lawyer, I can also help you if your first language is not English.