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Is my Islamic or religious marriage ceremony valid in the UK?

Up until last week the answer was no, an Islamic or religious marriage ceremony was not valid the UK. However a recent High Court case has thrown this question into doubt. The Marriage Act 1949 requires a marriage to take place in a register office, approved premises or a place of religious worship such as a Church, Mosque, Temple or Gurdwara that has been officially registered for marriages. It must be in the presence of the Registrar of Marriages or an authorised person, this can be a priest or imam registered by the approved place above.  

The couple would therefore either have a separate register office wedding (civil ceremony) in addition to their religious ceremony or if the venue where the religious marriage took place is an approved premises or a place of worship the registration takes place there. 

What happens if one person wants a divorce?

This has caused difficulties because many people believe their religious ceremony is all that is required for their marriage to be a legal and valid marriage in the UK despite it not taking place in an approved place or by an authorised person. For example many Islamic marriages (known as nikahs) take place at the person’s home or in a restaurant. The couple may not consider this to be a problem as they see themselves married in the eyes of their religion. 

However should they separate and seek a divorce then this is where issues can arise. Without the marriage being recognised as valid, neither party can have a divorce under English law. Not only this they cannot then access financial claims under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1979 (MCA) against the other spouse. Such financial claims can ensure a fair split of the couples’ assets and claims such as spousal maintenance  (payments each month from one spouse to the other) can be made under this Act. 

High Court decision on the status of a nikah

This is what happened in the High Court case of Nasreen Akhtar (wife) and Mohammed Shabaz Khan (husband). Their nikah took place in a restaurant conducted by an imam in accordance with Islamic law. The venue was not an approved premises and the imam was not an authorised person. They did not follow this religious ceremony up with a civil one at the register office. They went on to have children together and were known by all in their community as husband and wife. They later split up.  

The husband claimed they were never married as their marriage was not registered in the UK and therefore a non-valid marriage. The wife claimed their nikah should be classed as a marriage under UK law thus giving her access to making a financial claim under the more generous MCA. The judge, Mr Justice Williams ruled the marriage was valid under UK law. 

He said, ‘those that have remained married for a number of years, raised a family and have been treated  by all as husband and wife should not have the term non-marriage applied to them.’ The judge however stressed the facts of this case were particular to this couple. Nasreen Akhtar is now free to go on and make a financial claim against her husband which no doubt will see her being afforded a more generous award under the MCA 1979 than she would have received if she were treated as just a cohabitee. 

What does this mean for couples embarking on marriage?

So what does this mean for couples about to embark on a religious marriage? Do they need to bother with a separate civil marriage, or even have the ceremony in an approved place?  The answer is not clear. The law is now uncertain in this area until further legal guidance is given either by the courts or by Parliament. It would be wise to continue to register all marriages along side the religious marriage until such time as clarification is given. 

Not only does this case leave a question mark over the validity of religious marriages but it opens up a whole new debate for people that are vulnerable, married against their will not to mention bogus, sham marriages. At present the Registrar of Marriages or authorised person has been specially trained to ensure probing questions are asked of the couple and the reason for marriage. Surely this safeguard is at risk with this recent decision. 

For advice on the legal status of a marriage and the implications in a divorce case please contact our Head of Family Law, Jenny Sharma. First appointments are free and all advice is given in strict confidence. 

Disappointing news from the Home Office in asylum case

We’re very disappointed by the latest news from the Home Office in a case that we are currently working on.  Iram Shazadi and her son Muhammed Ali have had their application for asylum turned down and appeals have been unsuccessful.

Our Director, and the solicitor working on the case, Sanjeev Sharma explains:

“This case is another example of the Home Office creating a hostile environment for immigrants. This mother and son have had nothing but obstacles in their path since their escape from Pakistan. Despite their asylum claim not being accepted the medical condition of both of them speaks volumes and the risk to their health if returned to Pakistan. The Home Office need to start showing some compassion and humanity to genuine cases that are backed up with objective medical evidence like this one.”

Thanks to the media including the BBC for highlighting this case, we will continue to do what we can to keep them safe.

Our solicitors take on many cases on behalf of families who are facing difficulties claiming asylum and immigration issues.  The recent Windrush scandal has shown how hard it can be to make a case, even when you do have the right to live in this country.

If you know anyone who needs advice on asylum, visas or immigration, please ask them to get in touch.

Contact details for our immigration team are here.

J M Wilson Solicitors shortlisted for prestigious legal awards

We are delighted to say that we have been shortlisted for the Law Society’s prestigious Excellence Awards, the highest accolade for law firms in England and Wales.  This follows our success at the Birmingham Law Society Awards earlier this year.

We have been shortlisted in the 2018 Law Firm of the Year – Small (2-4 partners) category.

Sanjeev Sharma, Director, said: “Last year we had three cases decided by the Supreme Court. We  were successful in two and partially successful in the other one, confirming our position as leaders in human rights and immigration law.  In 2017 we also extended our free immigration legal advice sessions to cover Telford as well as Leicester and Birmingham.  Our Family Law cases continue to receive brilliant feedback from the clients we work with, and we have recently opened a civil and litigation department.

“We are also proud sponsors of a local school football team, the Broadway Raiders, who have also had a fantastic year, winning the vast majority of their games.”

Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said: “There are more than 9,000 firms and 140,000 solicitors in England and Wales, so to be shortlisted for an Excellence Award is to be recognised as being among the best of the best.

“All the firms and solicitors who are shortlisted should be congratulated for the work they do day-in day-out to support their clients, many of whom are navigating complex and challenging legal problems.

“At a time of immense pressure on the justice system, the incredible work being done by solicitors across the country should be applauded.”

Winners are announced at the Law Society’s Excellence Awards ceremony in London on 17 October.