On 14th February, the Court of Appeal ruled that Sharia marriages were not legally binding in the UK.
Such a ruling could have a profoundly negative affect on the many thousands of women that have undertaken a ‘nikah’ (Islamic marriage ceremony) without following this with a civil ceremony
Campaigners have claimed this ruling will leave many women penniless with no support after the break-up of Sharia unions and that this could have “profoundly discriminatory consequences” for women whilst upholding an antiquated system of marriage.
The case was brought to the Court of Appeal by the Attorney General to overturn the family court judge’s decision that a woman was entitled to apply for maintenance payments from her estranged husband despite the fact that although they had undertaken a nikah, they were not legally married. The couple in question were not appealing the original ruling.
As a little background, the couple involved in the original hearing had undertaken a nikah ceremony 18 years previously and had four children. The wife (a solicitor) had wanted to follow this by a civil ceremony but her husband refused to do this. Their relationship ended when her husband said he wanted to take another wife with her husband implying that he did not owe his wife anything by claiming their nearly two-decade relationship constituted a “non-marriage”.
However, Mr Justice Williams’ ruling at the High Court in London in July 2018 led to Ms Akhter being entitled to apply for maintenance.
“The wife’s evidence of how the husband put her under pressure saying that Islam permitted polygamy and that she was a bad Muslim and was rejecting the word of God shows a degree of emotional manipulation that is most unattractive,” he said in the judgement.
Even though no civil ceremony was held, Justice Williams said, the Islamic ceremony “bore all the hallmarks” of a marriage in that it was held in public, witnessed, officiated by an imam and involved the making of promises and confirmation that they were both eligible to marry.
He also said they had been “embarking on a process”, which was intended to include a civil ceremony, and took into account the interests of their children.
But in the written judgement which the Court of Appeal handed down on Friday, a trio of judges concluded that upholding the High Court’s ruling “would gravely diminish the value of the system of registration of marriages upon which so much depends in a modern community”.
The judgement added that it is “not difficult for parties who want to be legally married to achieve that status”.
Charles Hale QC, a senior family law barrister who represented another woman seeking a divorce following an Islamic marriage, criticised Friday’s ruling. He argued it would lead to women who only have religious marriages potentially being left with no money if their relationships broke down.
The lawyer added: “Thousands of women, usually Muslim women, believe that they lawfully marry in this country each year by undertaking a religious ceremony only. Many of them, and it’s usually Muslim women, do not know in fact that, no matter how many people attend, no matter how public an expression of the marital contract, that they are not in fact lawfully married in accordance with the laws of England and Wales.
“This means that many have absolutely no rights at the end of what they believe to be their ‘marriage’. No rights to assets in the husband’s sole name, and no rights to maintenance, even if, as with Ms Akhter, they were married for 18 years.”
A 2017 poll found almost all married Muslim women in the UK had undertaken a nikah, while nearly two-thirds had not followed this with a civil ceremony.
This ruling will be challenged at the Supreme Court which will provide a definitive answer to this dilemma.