In Oklahoma when they got concerned about sharia courts they had a constitutional amendment and a furious public debate; in Britain, by contrast, we get a private member's bill in the House of Lords. Even though all the debate about the arbitration and mediation services (equality) bill has dealt with the question of sharia courts, the word "sharia" is never mentioned in the bill. Perhaps it would be better if we looked at the proposals in the bill to see is there is anything objectionable in them.

The bill amends the Arbitration and Equality Acts. A judgment in an arbitration carried out under the Arbitration Act is not simply a personal agreement between the parties involved; it is a legally binding decision made by an arbitrator, which can be registered with the civil courts and enforced by the state through bailiffs etc. Therefore the state does have a right to say what sort of legal principles or rules are applied by an arbitrator.

The proposals in the bill say that an arbitrator cannot work on the principle that the evidence of a woman is automatically worth less than that of a man or that a woman is automatically entitled to inherit less property than a man. The Islamic Sharia Council, in a somewhat confusing press release, has said that sharia tribunals do not, in any event, consider the evidence of women as being less than that of a man – in which case I find it difficult to understand why the council is objecting to the principle of equality being written into law.

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