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Rethink on Sharia wills

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law society, sharia-compliant wills, practice note, protest, withdrawalWomen’s rights campaigners welcome withdrawal of the Law Society’s Sharia wills practice note.

One Law for All, Southall Black Sisters, the Centre for Secular Space, Nari Diganta and the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation have welcomed the Law Society’s recent action: withdrawing a Sharia-compliant wills practice note.

The practice note in question had advised solicitors on how to draw up ‘Sharia-compliant’ wills, stating that “… illegitimate and adopted children are not Sharia heirs … The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir … Non-Muslims may not inherit at all … a divorced spouse is no longer a Sharia heir…”

In the ensuing protest campaign, organised by women’s rights advocates Pragna Patel, Maryam Namazie, Gita Sahgal, Yasmin Rehman, Dianna Nammi, Rumana Hashem and Chris Moos, one open letter was addressed to Asma Jahangir, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Another, sent to the Law Society, included signatories such as scientist Richard Dawkins, writer Taslima Nasrin and founder of Secularism is a Woman’s Issue Marieme Helie Lucas.

On 28 April this year, a well-attended protest at the offices of the Law Society featured speakers such as human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell; Muslim Institute Fellow Yasmin Rehman; Rumana Hashem from Nari Diganta – Women in Movement for Social Justice, Secularism and Equal Rights, and Diana Nammi, Chief Executive of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO).

The organisers of the campaign also obtained legal advice from Karon Monaghan QC of Matrix Chambers.

Advice which stated that the practice note was unlawful as it provided guidance to solicitors that promoted an interpretation of Sharia that was discriminatory on the grounds of gender, religion and ethnicity and thus gave rise to the possibility of direct discrimination by solicitors.

This came after the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority had already withdrawn its endorsement of the Law Society’s Practice Note on 10 July, following the threat of legal action from Southall Black Sisters (SBS).

In addition, the campaigners also found that the Law Society had used the works of an extremist cleric – who has advocated flogging and stoning for “fornicators” – for their practice note.

The campaign received extensive press coverage and political support, including from Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, who warned that the Law Society’s practice note risked undermining the rule of law.

Remarking on the Law Society’s move, Pragna Patel, director of Southall Black Sisters, said: “SBS welcomes the Law Society’s decision to withdraw the discriminatory guidance.

“We also acknowledge that it has publicly apologised for having produced the ill-advised guidance in the first place.

“Let this episode serve as a warning to other public bodies that may be contemplating instituting ‘Sharia compliant’ measures that flout equality and human rights law and values, which must be regarded as universal and non-negotiable.

“We now look forward to working with the Law Society to address the devastating impact of the legal aid cuts which also prevent many abused and marginalised women from minority backgrounds from accessing justice.”

Commenting on the change, Maryam Namazie, founder of One Law for All, said: “The Law Society has finally succumbed to our pressure and withdrawn its guidance a week before women’s rights groups were to meet with them to step up our pressure against the discriminatory nature of their Sharia-compliant guidance.

“This is another huge victory for equality, one law for all and civil rights and yet another loss for the religious far-right.

“We congratulate all those who took part in this campaign. One law for all is not an empty slogan but must mean something particularly when it comes to the law.”

Gita Sahgal, director of the Centre for Secular Space (CCS), said: “We are delighted that the Law Society has finally seen sense and made clear that they do not wish to condone discrimination, have withdrawn the note entirely and will not seek to replace it. Their apology is very welcome.

“This is a victory against the institutionalisation of religious law. Secular values protect the rule of law far better than the regulators do. There are many battles ahead to protect human rights and access to justice. We have a common interest in these struggles.”

And Chris Moos, one of the organisers of the campaign, concluded: “The Law Society has done the only sensible thing – withdraw the guidance for good and apologise for promoting the use of discriminatory practices in the first place.

“Hopefully, those who have defended the practice note will now realise that the only way public bodies and representative organisations can be sure to meet their equality duties is by adhering to the principle of secular neutrality in matters of belief.”

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