Muslim courts will always remain ‘subservient’ to English law, Jack Straw declared last night.
In a speech to an Islamic conference, the Justice Secretary said the arguments against creating a parallel system of Sharia law in Britain were ‘overwhelming’.
His remarks come less than a week after one of his junior ministers, Bridget Prentice, appeared to clear Islamic courts to deal with family and divorce disputes, including how a Muslim couple divide their money and property and who gets the children.
Mr Straw said that – while courts could consider a Sharia ruling – they would make their own judgments on the welfare of the children.
Mr Straw, who is also Lord Chancellor, added: ‘It is ultimately up to the court to decide whether the agreement complies with English law. No court will endorse an agreement which conflicts with English law.’
In the strongest passage of last night’s speech, he continued: ‘There is nothing whatever in English law that prevents people abiding by Sharia principles if they wish to, provided they do not come into conflict with English law.
‘There is no question about that. But English law will always remain supreme, and religious councils subservient to it.’
Mr Straw earlier told the audience that ‘many dreadful things have been done in the name of mainstream religions. Barbaric practices such as stoning have been – quite wrongly – justified by reference to Islam, for instance’.
He added: ‘I am firm in disagreeing with those who say that Sharia law should be made a separate system in the UK. And there has been much misinformation in recent weeks about this issue.
‘There are some countries which do have within their systems of law separate courts to deal with issues of inheritance and family law for different faith groups, such as India and Egypt.
‘But we do not in the UK and there are overwhelming arguments about why we should not move down this path.’
Under certain circumstances, religious courts can act as arbitrators in personal disputes, Mr Straw said.
But he added: ‘Crucially, any member of a religious community – or indeed, any other community – has the right to refer to an English court, particularly if they feel pressured or coerced to resolve an issue in a way in which they feel uncomfortable.’
His speech will be seen as an attempt to end nine months of controversy over the role of tribunals run according to Islamic strictures.
But in July, Lord Phillips, who has since retired as Lord Chief Justice, said Sharia principles could be the basis for resolving family and business disputes.