Top judge sees mediation role for Sharia

LONDON (Reuters) - Islamic Sharia law could have a role in mediation in England, but the country will never have Islamic courts that can impose their own judgments, the top judge said on Thursday.

Lord Nicholas Addison Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Lord Chief Justice, joins judges wearing red robes and buckled shoes parading to the Houses of Parliament after attending a service at Westminster Abbey in central London, during an annual event marking the start of the legal year, in this file photo from October 3, 2005. Islamic Sharia law could have a role in mediation in England, but the country will never have Islamic courts that can impose their own judgments, Lord Phillips said on Thursday. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

In a speech, Lord Chief Justice Nicholas Phillips waded carefully into an issue that caused outrage when the Archbishop of Canterbury discussed it earlier this year.

“There is no reason why Sharia principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution,” Phillips said in a speech at the East London Muslim Centre.

“It must be recognised, however, that any sanctions for a failure to comply with the agreed terms of mediation would be drawn from the laws of England and Wales,” he added.

Britain has 1.7 million Muslims, and the role of Muslim institutions in public life is a touchy issue for a government which says it is committed to both “multiculturalism” and integrating minorities into the wider culture.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams caused a storm of outrage by saying earlier this year that it was “inevitable” that aspects of Sharia law would be adopted in Britain.

His remarks caused outrage, with newspapers accusing him of suggesting that women could be denied protections of British law if their husbands were allowed to seek Sharia divorces. He apologised for giving offence and said he was misunderstood.

Phillips said English law would remain the law of the land, but that parties to a dispute are free to agree to accept Sharia principles or other religious precepts if they decide to seek mediation.

“So far as the law is concerned, those who live in this country are governed by English and Welsh law and subject to the jurisdiction of English and Welsh courts.”

A spokesman for the Department of Justice, which oversees courts in England and Wales said: “English law, which is based on our shared values of equality and a respect for the rule of law of course takes precedence over any other legal system.

“The UK is proud of its diverse society and is committed to ensuring cohesive communities. There is nothing in English law that prevents people abiding by Sharia law if they wish to, provided it does not conflict with English law.”

Editing by Tim Castle