Freedom of arbitration

June 9, 2024

In the UK, religious tribunals operate within Muslim, Jewish and Sikh communities

Freedom of arbitration


he establishment of a Sikh religious court in London marks a significant milestone in the ongoing narrative of religious freedom in the United Kingdom. Operational since June 1, the court comprises three registrars, 29 magistrates, three associate judges and 12 judges. It is designed to address a variety of cases, including family disputes, civil disputes and fact-finding inquiries.

This development underscores the UK’s long-standing tradition of upholding freedom of religion and fundamental rights. The country accommodates several religious courts, each serving different communities and adjudicating personal law matters based on specific religious doctrines. Although the UK lacks a written constitution, its robust legal traditions effectively function as such, ensuring adherence to the rule of law. This system allows British citizens to take pride in the integrity and righteousness of their judicial framework.

Despite a strong national legal system, many religious courts in the United Kingdom are formally functional. These courts reflect the respective religions and cultures and primarily deal with issues related to personal law, including marriage, divorce and inheritance. While the decisions rendered by these courts have no legal force under UK civil law, they are followed voluntarily by those who seek their guidance.

In the UK, religious courts or tribunals operate within various communities, including Muslim, Jewish and Christian. Although there is no formal Hindu religious court, various community-based arbitration and mediation services address disputes within the Hindu community according to Hindu principles and traditions. Hindu temples, cultural organisations and community leaders often provide these services and handle marriage disputes and family matters etc.

The UK also hosts several Islamic Sharia Councils and Islamic Arbitration Councils. The exact number of these councils can be challenging to determine, as they are often community-based and some of them may not be registered. It is estimated that there are between 30 and 85 Sharia Councils in the UK. These councils serve the Muslim community by offering guidance and rulings on marriage, divorce, inheritance and other family issues. They do not have legal authority but reach decisions that can be followed by mutual consent of the parties involved. These councils consist of Islamic scholars who interpret and apply Sharia law. Proceedings often involve discussions, testimonies and mediation to resolve disputes.

Qari Tayyab Abbasi, the imam of Abubakar Mosque in South Hall, emphasises that Sharia Courts in the UK function primarily as facilitation institutions for Muslims, bearing a significant responsibility in resolving religious matters, particularly the complex issue of talaaq (divorce). These courts help prevent confusion arising from the application of English law to personal matters. All Sharia Councils are committed to resolving personal issues following the hudood (Islamic legal boundaries). Imam Abbasi recognises the Sharia Councils’ role in Britain in upholding religious principles and supporting the Muslim community.

The Jewish community hosts religious courts known as Beth Din, which serve the Orthodox Jewish community. These courts play a vital role in resolving civil disputes within the community. The Beth Din addresses issues such as kosher certification, marriage and divorce (including granting a “get” or religious divorce) and other religious matters. Like Sharia Councils, the rulings of the Beth Din are followed voluntarily. These courts resolve disputes according to Jewish religious laws rather than the country’s secular legal system.

Prominent Jewish courts in the UK include the London Beth Din and the Manchester Beth Din. Additionally, the Beth Din of the Federation of Synagogues and the Sephardi Beth Din of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London serve Orthodox Jews. The Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations operates a Beth Din in Stamford Hill for the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Cases are typically heard by a panel of rabbis who are experts in Jewish law. The process involves hearings, testimony and the application of Halacha (Jewish law) to the case.

Christians, the majority community in the UK, too, have religious courts. The Church of England’s ecclesiastical courts are the only religious courts that operate within the English legal framework. Each diocese of the Church of England has a court presided over by a judge appointed by the bishop. The Catholic Church operates its own tribunals, primarily dealing with matters such as marriage annulments within the Church. These religious courts or tribunals operate based on voluntary participation and do not have the power to enforce their rulings under UK law. Their decisions can influence personal and community matters for those who choose to adhere to them, but they must comply with UK law for legally binding matters. Catholic Church Tribunals associated with each diocese can number around 22 in England and Wales. These tribunals are staffed by canon lawyers who assess cases, particularly those concerning annulments. The process involves collecting evidence and testimonies and applying canon law to determine the validity of a marriage.

All these religious courts operate based on the voluntary participation of individuals who seek their guidance and rulings. They do not have legal authority under UK law but are respected within their respective religious communities. Individuals can choose to abide by the decisions of these courts, but such decisions do not supersede UK civil law. For example, a religious divorce does not have legal standing unless accompanied by a civil divorce.

The legal system in UK allows for arbitration. In some cases, religious courts can act as arbitral bodies, provided that nall parties agree to the arbitration and the process does not conflict with UK law. The judicial system comprises the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Crown Court, the County Court and the Magistrates Courts, administered by His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice.

The writer is a correspondent for Geo News, Daily Jang and The News in London

Freedom of arbitration