In January 2008 the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams spoke of the unavoidable introduction of some aspects of Sharia law in Britain.Since then the media have paid increasing attention to religious courts in the UK and specifically their role within minority communities in a multi-cultural society. The freedom and right to consult a religious body rather than a court of law in civil disputes and personal matters challenges the balance between two fundamental principles of contemporary British society, equality before the law and personal liberty. How does society balance the right to individual freedom in the private sphere if it conflicts with collective values, such as equality for women and freedom under the law from all forms of discrimination?
Family issues such as religious marriage and divorce and childcare provisions, the compatibility of religious law and English law and concerns over the potential emergence of a parallel legal system, are key issues in the discussion of religious courts in the UK. Media coverage has particularly focused on comparisons between Jewish courts, known collectively as the Batei Din (pl.) – or more commonly the Beth Din (sing.) – and Sharia courts. There is, however, considerable confusion over the legal status and remit of Jewish courts in the UK. This briefing will examine how Jewish courts work within UK law to offer arbitration in civil disputes law; the religious functions of the Beth Din; and the plurality of Jewish law amongst the Beth Din the UK.