Sharia courts are putting women at risk of violence from abusive husbands, the Crown Prosecution Service has warned.
The courts, which issue rulings according to Islamic law, have been found to be giving Muslim women advice which experts warned may place them in danger.
Undercover filming in some of the 85 councils operating in mosques and houses across the country has revealed that the courts, which are run by sharia councils, are ruling in favour of men meeting estranged wives or having access to children when they have found to have been abusive.
Sharia law has no formal place in any of Britain’s legal systems. However, the investigation found courts in London which follow it were making rulings on domestic and marital issues according to Islamic law which appeared at odds with English family law.
Although they are not legally binding, those who were subject to the rulings them felt they had to follow them as a matter of religious belief – or because they felt under pressure from family and community to do so.
In one case filmed by a BBC reporter for the Panorama documentary, an Islamic scholar from a sharia council ruled in a custody dispute that the children should be taken away from their mother and be placed with their reportedly violent father.
The woman, known only as Sonia, who lives in Leeds, had already been granted a civil divorce in a British court, which had given her husband only limited access to the children.
However, when she went to Leyton Islamic Sharia Council, in east London, to be granted a divorce in the eyes of her religion it was ruled the children should be given to the father.
One Islamic school of thought decrees a father can take custody of a boy at the age of seven and a girl as young as nine.
When she told the Islamic scholar of the domestic violence she and her children had suffered, his advice was to not inform the police as that would be the “very, very last resort”.
Sonia told the reporter: “I could not bear the thought of such a violent person having my children. What was even more shocking was when I explained to Leyton why he shouldn’t have access to the children their reaction was – well you can’t go against what Islam says.”
Sonia stood her ground and eventually the Leyton judges dropped their demand.
In another case in West Yorkshire, a woman who had an injunction preventing her abusive husband from contact with her and her children was told by the Sharia council sheshould meet him to try mediation to avoid divorce.
The woman had told the scholars she was too terrified to meet him and had to hire an outside family lawyer to stop the meeting going ahead.
Nazir Afzal, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service in the north-west of England, who is a Muslim who has spoken out against honour-based domestic violence, said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by what he was shown.
“Most of them are fine are absolutely fine, but there are some who are putting women at risk,” he said of the courts.
“And doing so for ridiculous reasons, namely that they are somehow responsible for the abuse they are suffering.”