Under ground-breaking guidance produced by The Law Society, High Street solicitors will be able to write Islamic wills that comply with Islamic Law.
The documents, which would be recognised by Britain's courts, will allow different shares of inheritance to be awarded to sins and daughters, provide for inheritance to be contingent on shared religious faith, and prevent children born out of wedlock and eadopted children from being counted as legitimate heirs.
Anyone married in a church, or in a civil ceremony, could be excluded from succession under Sharia principles, which recognise only Muslim weddings for inheritance purposes.
Nicholas Fluck, president of The Law Society, said the guidance would promote âgood practiceâ in applying Islamic principles in the British legal system.
Some lawyers, however, described the guidance as âastonishingâ, while campaigners warned it represented a major step on the road to a âparallel legal systemâ for Britain's Muslim communities.
Baroness Cox, a cross-bench peer leading a Parliamentary campaign to protect women from religiously sanctioned discrimination, including from unofficial Sharia courts in Britain, said it was a âdeeply disturbingâ development and pledged to raise it with ministers.
âThis violates everything that we stand for,â she said. âIt would make the Suffragettes turn in their graves.â
In reality, the new guidelines are merely one more example of the practice notes that the Law Society issues for the use and benefit of its members.
These documents represent the Law Society's view of good practice in a particular area. Lawyers are not required to follow them, but doing so makes it easier for them to account to oversight bodies for their actions.
The guidance, quietly published this month and distributed to solicitors in England and Wales, details how wills should be drafted to fit Islamic traditions while being valid under British law.
It suggests deleting or amending standard legal terms and even words such as âchildrenâ to ensure that those deemed âillegitimateâ are denied any claim over the inheritance.
It recommends that some wills include a declaration of faith in Allah which would be drafted at a local mosque, and hands responsibility for drawing up some papers to Sharia courts.
The guidance goes on to suggest that Sharia principles could potentially overrule British practices in some disputes, giving examples of areas that would need to be tested in English courts.
Currently, Sharia principles are not formally addressed by or included in Britain's laws.
However, a network of Sharia courts has grown up in Islamic communities to deal with disputes between Muslim families.
A few are officially recognised tribunals, operating under the Arbitration Act.
They have powers to set contracts between parties, mainly in commercial disputes, but also to deal with issues such as domestic violence, family disputes and inheritance battles. But many more unofficial Sharia courts are also in operation.
Parliament has been told of a significant network of more informal Sharia tribunals and âcouncilsâ, often based in mosques, dealing with religious divorces and even child custody matters in line with religious teaching.
They offer âmediationâ rather than adjudication, although some hearings are laid out like courts with religious scholars or legal experts sitting in a manner more akin to judges than counsellors.
One study estimated that there were now around 85 Sharia bodies operating in Britain. But the new Law Society guidance represents the first time that an official legal body has recognised the legitimacy of some Sharia principles.
It opens the way for non-Muslim lawyers in High Street firms to offer Sharia will drafting services. The document sets out crucial differences between Sharia inheritance laws and Western traditions.
It explains how, in Islamic custom, inheritances are divided among a set list of heirs determined by ties of kinship rather than named individuals. It acknowledges the possibility of people having multiple marriages.
âThe male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class,â the guidance says. âNon-Muslims may not inherit at all, and only Muslim marriages are recognised.
Similarly, a divorced spouse is no longer a Sharia heir, as the entitlement depends on a valid Muslim marriage existing at the date of death. This means you should amend or delete some standard will clauses.â
It advises lawyers to draft special exclusions from the Wills Act 1837, which allows gifts to pass to the children of an heir who has died, because this is not recognised in Islamic law.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: âThis guidance marks a further stage in the British legal establishment's undermining of democratically determined human rights-compliant law in favour of religious law from another era and another culture. British equality law is more comprehensive in scope and remedies than any elsewhere in the world. Instead of protecting it, The Law Society seems determined to sacrifice the progress made in the last 500 years.â
Lady Cox said: âEveryone has freedom to make their own will and everyone has freedom to let those wills reflect their religious beliefs. But to have an organisation such as The Law Society seeming to promote or encourage a policy which is inherently gender discriminatory in a way which will have very serious implications for women and possibly for children is a matter of deep concern.â
John Bingham, "Islamic law is adopted by British legal chiefs" The Telegraph UK March 24, 2014
Antonia Molloy, "Islamic law to be enshrined in British law as solicitors get guidelines on 'Sharia compliant' wills" The Independent UK March 24, 2014
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today