In yesterday’s House of Lords debate on the Queen’s Speech, Viscount Bridgeman admitted to wandering ‘slightly off piste in the context of this debate’ because he wished ‘to speak about the problem of marriages under sharia law in this country and, in particular, the fate of Muslim women seeking a religious divorce or being subject to a divorce by their husbands’.
He paid tribute to Baroness Cox’s work on this, noting that she was unable to speak and would be speaking on another aspect of the Queen’s Speech debate.
He then outlined the scale of the issue with unregistered religious marriages in the context of Islam, first with statistics and then by saying:
I understand that sharia courts can be set up with little formality by any member of the Muslim community, and it comes as little surprise that the application and interpretation of sharia law can vary widely. The problem can be exacerbated in the many cases where women may not be aware of their legal rights and may well have language problems. Then there is the extreme shame which a Muslim woman in a divorce situation can be subjected to, both within her family and in the community.
He claimed that the Government had yet to be convinced of the need for reform:
The Government continue to claim that there is no need for a change in the law because all citizens can access their rights according to law, yet the chasm between the de jure and the de facto is an abyss into which countless women are falling and suffering as a result.
He referred to the numerous reports and ‘enlightened advice on the matter’, noting that ‘the Law Commission will be taking that into account in its own report, which I understand is due in July.’ He asked ‘for an assurance that the Government will not delay any further in acting on the Law Commission’s report and will, in the next Session, bring forward legislation’.
Worryingly he then described Baroness Cox’s failed private Members bill, the Marriage Act 1949 (Amendment) Bill, which would create an offence of purporting to solemnize an unregistered marriage, as an ‘admirably short template’ for such reform arguing:
Its simple message is that all future marriages in the United Kingdom will require to be registered. What could be simpler than that?
With respect to Viscount Bridgeman, this proposed solution is too simple. It’s already the law that all marriages need to be registered to be legally binding. The problem is that the law currently puts hurdles in front of those who seek a religious marriage ceremony that will be legally binding. It’s the requirement that a Muslim marriage ceremony will only be legally binding if it is in a registered place of religious worship that needs to be changed – and even that it is just a partial solution. This has been grasped by the Law Commission in their work on this to date.
Lord Parkinson, responding to the debate as Under Secretary for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (that title reflecting how much this part of the debate had gone off piste), replied as follows:
The law has long made provision for couples, including Muslim couples, to marry in their place of worship in a way that gives them legal rights and protections. The Government share the concern that some people may none the less marry in a way that does not, and without appreciating the consequences. We will continue to explore limited reform and non-legislative options in this area with the greatest of care. This work will be informed by the forthcoming reports from the Law Commission on weddings and from the Nuffield Foundation on religious weddings.
The reference to ‘limited reform’ is concerning unless it means limited reform in addition to considering the comprehensive reform that the Law Commission seem likely to propose. It’s concerning if understandable that there’s no commitment for legislation on this in the next Queen’s Speech. It’s also noteworthy that the report from Nuffield Foundation research has already been published so perhaps this should be taken as a sign that this is not part of Lord Parkinson’s brief and so we should not read too much into his comments.
For a full discussion of how this issue should be resolved, see my book on the topic: https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/religion-and-marriage-law