The world’s first Sikh court opens in London

Image credit: Liz Harris

By Liz Harris

Sikh chants echoed around the panelled walls of the 15th-century Old Hall in Lincoln’s Inn at the launch of the world’s first Sikh court on Saturday.

Beneath portraits of England’s 17th-century judiciary, 46 Sikh “magistrates and judges” took an oath to “uphold the principles of justice, equality, and integrity as prescribed by the teachings of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji and the Sikh faith”. Most of them were women.

The court was set up by Sikh lawyers who felt the UK courts lacked the religious and cultural expertise and resources to deal with disputes between Sikhs due to the pressure they were under.

It will operate as an alternative forum for dispute resolution for UK-based Sikhs involved in family and civil disputes.

Its launch is likely to reignite debate over the operation of religious courts, including Sharia and Beth Din dispute resolution systems, which operate in the UK for Muslims and Jews.

However barrister Baldip Singh, one of the court’s founders, insisted it was not a religious court. Unlike Islam and Judaism, Sikhism does not have its own legal code.

He said its purpose would be “to assist Sikh families in their time of need when dealing with conflict and disputes in line with Sikh principles”.

It was not a parallel system, but was based on the mediation-arbitration framework and would work in tandem with the UK courts, Mr Singh said. The court’s founders also hoped it would alleviate backlogs in the civil and family courts by dealing with low level disputes.

However, Dr Prakash Shah, Reader in Culture and Law at Queen Mary University of London, said: “I see this kind of movement as a sign — one of the signs — towards reinforcing the fundamentalist strain in the Sikh tradition. I do not find the reasons given to prefer the secular courts over a Sikh religious court particularly convincing. Contemporary secular courts do go to some lengths to take on cultural and religious issues and are also able to call on expert evidence to supply relevant information.”

But the court’s founders said those now appearing before the secular family courts rarely had the benefit of expert religious opinions, because of the cost. In one case, a Sikh couple who had separated were in a dispute about cutting their son’s hair. The mother wanted it short, while the father applied for a court order for the boy’s hair to be kept long.

Under the tenets of their faith, baptised Sikhs, also known as Khalsa (pure), do not cut their hair. In this instance, the parties could not afford an expert to provide evidence to the court, which ruled in the mother’s favour as primary carer of the child.

In such cases, Mr Singh said, the judge had to make a decision without the benefit of an expert, while the Sikh court would benefit from judges with knowledge of the Sikh tradition.

At the first instance, Sikh court “magistrates” will mediate in disputes to try to negotiate a settlement, as well as directing court users to courses that can help them work on issues that have contributed to the dispute. These courses, developed with Sikh charities, cover low-level domestic violence, anger management, gambling and substance misuse and are available in Punjabi as well as English.

Supporters of the Sikh Court say they will be available at “significantly lesser costs” than in the family courts. If mediation is unsuccessful, the case could be brought in front of a Sikh court judge who can give a legally binding judgment under the Arbitration Act.

Its supporters said impetus for the court came after the introduction of “no-fault” divorces in England and Wales two years ago. That legislation removed the previous requirement that spouses must attribute blame for a marriage’s breakdown.

They acknowledged the reformed divorce law reduced the bad feeling that often accompanied marital breakdown, but Mr Singh wanted “to see how we can prevent that level of animosity in other ways as well, where it preserves the sanctity of marriage or preserves the religious values that people have been brought up with”.

Women’s rights groups have raised concerns in the past about religious courts, arguing that in some cases they can be used to pressure women to stay in abusive marriages — or to dissolve marriages on very unfavourable terms to the wife.

However, Sukhvinder Kaur, 40, the faith and exploitation lead at Sikh Women’s Aid, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the role the Sikh court could play for “vulnerable, mainly women, and some men too, who have been financially, emotionally, and sexually exploited by people holding positions of trust in religious settings”.

Such cases sometimes fall between the gaps within the British system as cases of so-called “spiritual abuse” may not meet the threshold for prosecution.

Ms Kaur, who has faced threats of violence after supporting women who have alleged sexual abuse in a faith setting, said there was currently no Sikh body that could take action on Sikh granthis (religious officials) who abused their position of trust. But she would reserve full judgment on the value of the court until it had been operating for at least a year.

“In any community when you are trying to police your own, it is never 100 per cent safe for the victim,” she said.

Sharan Bhachu, 47, a barrister specialising in family law, who was sworn in as a “judge” that morning, is chief lead for the family section in the Sikh court.

“If we think that there are really significant safeguarding issues that we cannot deal with and should not deal with, they will be directed to the appropriate place,” she said. “We’re not here to take over and upset the English courts.”

Mr Singh also stressed that under the rules of the new court both parties would have to consent to participating.

He believed Sikh women would benefit from using the court rather than going to a judge who may not fully understand their cultural or religious issues and from being able to explain, “in their own language without an interpreter, that ‘this is what my husband is doing to me and I can’t take it any more’.”

Gurpreet Anand, president of the Khalsa Jatha in Holland Park, west London, the UK’s oldest gurdwara, said there was an “interesting mix” of reactions in the Sikh community. “There are people who are excited by it, but there are some who seem against it,” he added. “I’ve heard comparisons to Shariah courts, which I don’t think is accurate here.”

He was initially cautious about the court, but said the founders gave “very good answers” to his questions. “Quite often, as president of a gurdwara I get people coming to me with their problems and I’m not always the best person to deal with it,” he said.

“Quite often I end up having to recommend people go down the legal route. The court gives us more of a community or citizen-based type solution that people can try out before they spend tens of thousands going to court.”


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