Three senior judges are to rule on the legality of an arranged marriage conducted in the UK under sharia law, a judgment that could have profound consequences for British Muslims.
Last week, as Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared it was 'inevitable' that certain parts of Islamic law would be introduced into Britain, the Court of Appeal was told how a 26-year-old British Muslim with learning difficulties was married over the telephone to a woman in Bangladesh. It was arranged by the man's father and deemed lawful under sharia law.
Lord Justice Thorpe, Lord Justice Hall and Lady Justice Hallett were asked by the man's family to reject an earlier decision that, because the groom was unable to give his consent, the marriage was unlawful. Mr Justice Wood said that the true test into the validity of the marriage was 'whether the marriage is so offensive to the conscience of the English court that it should refuse to recognise and give effect to the proper foreign law'.
The judge added that the long-standing British policy to recognise sharia marriages conducted abroad should be offset by the understanding that 'there are occasions when such a marriage cannot be recognised in England, for example where to do so would be repugnant to public policy'.
The case was brought by Westminster city council community services department after the local authority raised concerns about a marriage in which the groom could not possibly have given consent because of his learning disabilities.
The marriage took place in September 2006. Although the bridegroom stayed in London and listened to the ceremony by speakerphone, the ceremony took place in Bangladesh and was declared valid under sharia law.
Yogi Amin of the law firm Irwin Mitchell, representing Westminster council, said: 'This case highlights that the law in this country may clash with sharia law and the cultural wishes of the family.' He added: 'The High Court held that the marriage in this case ... is not valid under English law, and that any marriage entered into by this vulnerable adult whether inside or outside England will not be recognised under English law.'
Legal experts said the case would have ramifications for plans to make forced marriages - often arranged marriages involving youngsters - prohibited in the UK under case law.
Yesterday the archbishop hit back amid calls for his resignation. A statement on his website said he made no proposals for sharia and 'did not call for its introduction as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law'. Sources close to the archbishop said he had been surprised at what he believes is the 'irrational' reaction to his speech.
Already two members of the General Synod, the church's parliament, have called for Williams to resign amid criticism from leading bishops, secular groups and government figures. Today, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Lord George Carey, Williams's predecessor, has accused him of 'overstating the case for accommodating Islamic legal codes', adding that 'acceptance of some Muslim laws would be disastrous for the nation'.
Head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, echoed these sentiments and added: 'I don't believe in a multicultural society. When people come into this country they have to obey the laws of the land.'
But Lord Carey also defended the archbishop as a great Anglican leader, saying 'this is not a matter upon which Dr Williams should resign'.
Source: Guardian (English), h/t Weasel Zippers