English law applies to Islamic marriage, judge rules in divorce case

A high court judge has decided that a couple’s Islamic marriage falls within the scope of English matrimonial law, in a ruling that could have implications for thousands of Muslims in the UK.

Nasreen Akhter wanted to divorce Mohammed Shabaz Khan, her husband of 20 years, but he blocked it, arguing that the couple were not married under English law.

Akhter and Khan underwent a religious marriage ceremony, known as a nikah, conducted by an imam in 1998.

This year Akhter, a solicitor, petitioned for divorce, saying the nikah constituted a valid marriage. Khan, a businessman, wanted to prevent Akhtar from bringing a case for a divorce settlement to court, and said they were married only under sharia or Islamic law.

In a written ruling, Mr Justice Williams, who heard the case in the family division of the high court in London, concluded that the marriage fell within the scope of the 1973 Matrimonial Causes Act.

He said the marriage was void under section 11 of the act because it was “entered into in disregard of certain requirements as to the formation of marriage. It is therefore a void marriage and the wife is entitled to a decree of nullity.”

The judge heard that the couple, both 46 and from a Pakistani background, lived in London, Birmingham and Dubai.

Akhter said that after the nikah ceremony in front of 150 guests at a restaurant in Southall, west London, she had seen Khan as her husband and he had “always introduced me as his wife”.

Previous cases involving nikah marriages have concluded that they were legally non-existent, meaning spouses had no redress to the courts for a division of matrimonial assets such as the family home and spouse’s pension if a marriage broke down.

Hazel Wright, a family law specialist at Hunters Solicitors, said the ruling had “given heart to many who otherwise suffer discrimination”. She said it was vital for Akhter that the “English divorce court rule in her favour, that the marriage should be recognised as void and not a non-marriage. Otherwise she would not have any rights to make any financial claims for herself.”

 

Harriet Sherwood

 

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