Andrew Tettenborn

Do we need a Sikh court?

Sikh musicians perform during the Nagar Kirtan procession in Southall (photo: Getty)

Last week in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, nearly 50 prominent Sikhs gathered to mark the formation of the world’s first specifically Sikh court. When the body opens for business on 1 June, its members will be available essentially to do two things. They can provide what the lawyers call Alternative Dispute Resolution, helping to settle family and community arguments. In addition, on request they will act as arbitrators in property or business disputes, with the power to give determinations which will be legally binding.

Apart from noting the irony that the governing body of Lincoln’s Inn – which last year ostentatiously distanced itself from religion by abolishing its Christian grace before meals – is now welcoming with open arms an explicitly religious but non-Christian legal initiative, what should we say? On balance, we should probably support this new court. On the other hand, the fact that it is being set up in the first place needs to set us thinking and perhaps should give us wider concern. Here’s why.

For religious people, the difficulty with the modern British establishment is that it is not so much uneducated about religion as quietly hostile to it

On the positive side, this is simply an exercise by a group, which happens to be religious, of its freedom to set up its own domestic mechanism to deal with disputes. There is no element of compulsion involved: members of the court can mediate or act as arbiters only where the parties agree. If Sikh businesses prefer to air their disputes before a Sikh court rather than a more traditional London commercial arbitrator from the Temple, that is their right. If it takes pressure off the ordinary courts, so much the better. Furthermore, there are a lot of disputes that are arguably better mediated within the Sikh community than litigated outside it. (One example given was a dispute about who should dictate a child’s hair-style, something that shouldn’t get within a hundred miles of a local court if we can possibly help it.)

In this respect the new court may well be a little like the London Beth Din, which has quietly operated for many years in the background for the resolution of disputes within the Jewish community and has caused few if any problems. Indeed, if anything the Sikh court is even less controversial, since in contrast to the Beth Din, which applies rabbinical law, there is no such thing as Sikh law, and so the new court, in so far as it applies any law, will simply apply the law of the land.

True, you might say that if we encourage this we can hardly complain of efforts by Muslims to divert as much of their business as possible to Islamic courts applying Sharia law. But there is a difference. The difficulty with Islamic courts in Britain is not so much their separation from the legal system, as the aspects of Islamic teaching which are hard to reconcile with acceptance of a non-Islamic government. And the fact that many (not all, but still too many) supporters of such courts are hardline Islamists who frankly despise our democracy. Here we do need to tread carefully. But for better or worse, this does not apply to Sikhs and Jews in the UK, nearly all of whom are perfectly happy to respect our government when it comes to secular matters.

So far so good. What should worry us, however, is that the Sikh community saw the need to set this court up in the first place. Although some suggest that it was a response to the ordinary courts’ lack of expertise in Sikh culture and customs, one suspects this is only a partial truth.

For religious people, the difficulty with the modern British establishment is that it is not so much uneducated about religion as quietly hostile to it. Far from accepting religious institutions and within reason working with them, it adopts an aggressively liberal secularist perspective. It sees religious faith as a slightly tiresome thing that gets in the way of what it sees as enlightened progressive measures. Family and other courts are no exception: anyone with a religious background who encounters them is likely to recognise pretty early on that mantras such as ‘human rights’ and the ‘best interests of the child’ normally mean the side-lining of their own traditions in favour of a kind of aggressive technocratic secularism. In such a situation you can hardly blame the religious for wanting to keep as many disputes as possible away from them.

Put bluntly, the problem in Britain for many adherents of minority religions is not a straitlaced English culture that seemingly excludes them. It is actually the opposite: namely, the refusal by the English establishment to impose moral boundaries, and its vacuous liberal approach which treats all values as equally valid. The Sikh community has quietly recognised this by setting up its own entirely harmless and probably beneficial semi-judicial institution. But the British state needs to watch out. If communities see it as an institution frightened of adopting any serious moral standpoint, more sinister and fissiparous community divisions are likely to grow.