Britain’s highest judicial officer ruled out a role for Shariah law parallel to Britain’s legal system during an appearance in Washington yesterday, where he advocated a British bill of rights as a first step toward a U.S.-style constitution.
Jack Straw, the lord chancellor and justice minister, insisted there cannot be two separate legal systems in response to a question after his address at George Washington University.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams provoked outrage last week when he said it was “unavoidable” that elements of Islamic Shariah law will be introduced in Britain.
“Certain provisions of Shariah are already recognized in our society and under our law, so it’s not as if we’re bringing in an alien and rival system,” the archbishop said in a speech and a television interview.
Mr. Straw said the archbishop’s remarks had prompted him to consult members of his Lancashire constituency who were active in the local council and mosques.
One of those constituents quoted a remark by a Muslim prophet who said: “If you are a Muslim and live in a country which is not, you must abide by that country’s laws,” Mr. Straw recounted.
“There is no appetite in my Muslim constituents for Shariah law,” the justice minister added. “In my district, half of the constituents are South Indian, there are 30 mosques in my town.”
Mr. Straw noted that the 1996 Arbitration Act allows groups to come together with their own rules, and that Orthodox Jews, for example, use those rules to settle certain disputes.
But “as to whether you have a separate legal system, no,” he said. He then repeated the “no” more emphatically, prompting laughter.
In his prepared remarks, titled “Modernizing the Magna Carta,” Mr. Straw took up a four-month-old proposal by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to for the first time codify legal practices that have for centuries remained unwritten.
While the rights of British subjects are “in our cultural DNA,” Mr. Straw said, thought must be given to whether “a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities should be a step towards a fully written constitution, which would bring us in line with most progressive democracies around the world.”
The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 in Britain has already created a U.S.-style supreme court that will begin hearing cases next year.
“For rights to be afforded their true significance, they need to have legal expression and enforcement as well as symbolic value,” Mr. Straw said.
Britain operates under an unwritten 1,000-year-old constitution which is built upon ancient custom, common law, parliamentary statutes and documents such as the 1689 Bill of Rights and the 1215 Magna Carta.
Mr. Straw repeatedly said Britain can “learn from” the United States’ experience in drafting its new constitution, which will be developed in consultation with the public and enacted by a parliamentary statute.
But John O’Sullivan, the newly appointed executive editor of Radio Free Europe and a former special adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, argued that the proposed British document would in fact undermine individual rights.
“The first bill of rights was British in 1689 [and] like the American Bill of Rights, it protected people’s rights,” Mr. O’Sullivan said in an interview.
“The kind of bill of rights proposed by Mr. Straw empowers government to extend its protection of some citizen over others, and thus increases government power and reduces citizens’ rights in total,” he said.