Campaigners call for change in the law following Court of Appeal ruling on Islamic marriage

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The Court of Appeal has overturned a High Court ruling that, if upheld, would have recognised Islamic marriage under English law.

Instead, the judgment means that such a marriage (nikah) gives no legal rights for spouses regarding assets and pensions if the relationship breaks down. For those rights to be effective, couples must also hold a civil ceremony.

However, according to research, nearly two thirds of Muslim couples haven’t been through the civil ceremony process following their nikah. In light of the Court of Appeal decision, many Muslim women will continue to be denied rights to property held solely in their husband’s name and have no entitlement to receive maintenance payments.

Campaigners calling for better legal protection insist that the current laws are not fit for purpose in a modern multicultural society. There is widespread concern that women wishing to extricate themselves from nikah marriages will not have equality of legal rights as financial protections available under Islamic law are not as extensive as those provided under UK law.

Although many Islamic centres across the UK require couples wishing to hold a nikah to also obtain civil registration, this is applied on a discretionary basis only.

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 defines three categories of marriages. Valid marriages can be ended by divorce, whilst void marriages can be annulled by decree. However, those falling under the third category of non-marriage cannot be legally ended as these marriages are deemed never to have existed in the first place.

The recent case that has sparked the controversy concerned a nikah marriage between Nasreen Akhter and Mohammed Shabaz Khan which subsequently broke down. Akhter petitioned for divorce but this was rejected on the basis that the nikah wasn’t recognised under English law. Khan had previously refused to go through with a civil ceremony.

At the initial hearing, the High Court ruled that Akhter and Khan had entered their nikah marriage “in disregard of certain requirements as the formation of marriage”. As such, it classified the marriage as being void, entitling Akhter to an annulment.

However, following an appeal instigated by the Attorney General, the Court of Appeal decided that to uphold the original ruling would have a negative impact on the UK’s marriage registration system. It went on to highlight that the legal rights associated with marriage can be easily obtained and added that the state was not obliged to recognise religious marriage on the grounds of human rights.

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