Since the 1996 Arbitration Act, Government ministers have allowed Islamic tribunals around Britain to rule on a range of financial disputes, provided both parties agree to accept the court's decision. But in recent years, these tribunals have developed into fully fledged Sharia Councils – allowed to settle new disputes, such as divorce, family law, and faith issues. These powers go well beyond the letter and spirit of the original legislation and whilst they provide new ways of dispensing cheap justice they do not always dispense fair justice.
By expanding the powers of Sharia Councils, ministers have set the scene for a breaking narrative which is fractious, discriminates against women, and, incrementally, is establishing a parallel legal system.
As Sharia Councils expand their powers and reach, ministers have unwittingly rolled the dice over a type of cultural snakes and ladders, all in the hope that such initiatives will increase inclusiveness and marginalise Islamic radicals. But all the evidence contradicts ministers' stated aims. Sharia rulings are more likely to create legal ghettos – undermining rather than improving social cohesion. And in so doing, ministers are found guilty of piecemeal legal vandalism and managing the gradual decline of English jurisprudence.