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Britain doesn’t need a ‘Sikh court’

But nor do we need to panic about the rise of a ‘parallel legal system’.

Hardeep Singh

Topics Identity Politics Polemics

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At the end of April, Lincoln’s Inn in London held a rather unusual gathering. A group consisting largely of legal professionals with Sikh heritage came together for what was billed as the founding ceremony of the world’s first ‘Sikh court’.

The 30 magistrates and 15 judges – mostly made up of women – were sworn in at a ceremony, pledging to ‘uphold the principles of justice, equality and integrity as prescribed by the teachings of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji [the Sikh scriptures] and the Sikh faith’. This ‘court’ formally opens today, 1 June.

In truth, to call it a Sikh court is a bit misleading. This isn’t a court in the same sense as the Old Bailey, the High Court or Supreme Court. It is really a mechanism for alternative dispute resolution, which aims to settle civil conflicts among families and communities outside of the legal system. It will also provide arbitration services in property and business disputes, offering binding rulings on these matters. It will act within the provisions of the Arbitration Act 1996.

To make matters more confusing, there isn’t really such a thing as ‘Sikh law’, either. Sikhs do not possess a body of religious law akin to Islamic Sharia law or Jewish rabbinic law – both of which have courts operating in the UK within the existing secular legal framework. The Sikh court will exist primarily to help Sikhs resolve conflicts according to their religious principles. One of the project’s founders, Baldip Singh, who was also appointed chief judge, describes it as ‘an initiative to support the judicial system and work in tandem in dealing with disputes that currently clog up the… burdened judicial system’.

This may be useful in cases where expertise on the Sikh religion or Punjabi customs is central to mediating. The founders give the example of a separated Sikh couple’s dispute over whether the mother should be allowed to cut their son’s hair – something generally forbidden in Sikhism. Secular family courts find such cases difficult to navigate.

More avenues for specialised mediation are certainly a good thing. Taking a case to a real court can be incredibly stressful, time-consuming and expensive for everyone involved. And, as Singh notes, our judicial system is already over-stretched as it is.

But there are certainly problems with the initiative. The ill-conceived name, in particular, has generated needless anxiety. Arbitration, by definition, happens outside of court. So billing this as a kind of alternative legal system for Sikhs was always bound to cause confusion and controversy.

News of the Sikh court led to a fierce backlash across social media. Responding to an article about it, actor-turned-commentator Laurence Fox declared, dramatically, on X: ‘We are in the final days of Great Britain. Everything that made this Union great is being systematically destroyed in front of our eyes.’

Fox is obviously being a tad alarmist, but he wasn’t the only one who misunderstood the aims and scope of the Sikh court. The National Secular Society also complained that it was ‘very concerning to see religious authority set up as a parallel legal system’.

Is it as bad as all that? Law professor Andrew Tettenborn doesn’t think so. Writing in the Spectator, he compares the new Sikh court and the London Beth Din, a rabbinic court that has operated largely without issue since the 18th century. If anything, Tettenborn suggests, the Sikh project is ‘less controversial’. The lack of a Sikh legal code means that a parallel legal system is unlikely to emerge, as can happen with Sharia or rabbinic courts. ‘Insofar as it applies any law’, Tettenborn explains, the Sikh court ‘will simply apply the law of the land’.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a Sikh court is harmless. As one Sikh professional told me: ‘There is a grave risk of vulnerable people being forced into using the Sikh court and then having their route to using the civil courts in the country blocked out. It all seems very murky to me.’ Women’s group Southall Black Sisters has similarly warned that the court could pose a danger to women. Other religious forms of alternative dispute resolution, it says, have been shown to ‘strengthen the power and control of husbands, male family members and mothers-in-law’ over ‘minoritised women’.

There is another, more practical issue at hand here. Namely, Sikhs, being a relatively small religious minority, have fewer degrees of separation between one another than the average Briton. In fact, several of those appointed as ‘judges’ and ‘magistrates’ at the Sikh court are saved as contacts in my phone. For mediation to work properly, it must be carried out by a neutral third party. How impartial can a court really be when dealing with sensitive matters within its own tight-knit community?

It’s worth putting the scale of the ‘Sikh court’ idea in perspective. Certainly, the idea that this represents an existential threat to our legal system is overblown. It will likely have very little in common with the sometimes insular and radical Sharia courts. But it could still end up doing more harm than good.

Hardeep Singh is a writer based in London. Follow him on X: @singhtwo2

Picture by: Liz Harris.

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Topics Identity Politics Polemics

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