Secular lawyers threaten action over Law Society Sharia wills guide

Lawyers threatened the Law Society with possible legal action today in the wake of Chancery Lane’s recent guidance on drafting Sharia law-compliant wills.

The leader of the Lawyers’ Secular Society (LSS) pilloried the solicitors’ representation body for being “incredibly naive” and caving into religious lobbying groups, following a practice note sent to solicitors on 13 March. 

LSS secretary Charlie Klendjian criticised the Law Society for issuing guidance that “displays an assumption that Muslims are a monolithic bloc. The society may have been motivated by good intentions, but the only way of having a truly multi-cultural and diverse society that is fair is to have one law for everyone in the jurisdiction, and not to do anything that undermines the primacy of English law”.

Klendjian raised the prospect of a public law challenge of the society’s powers in distributing the practice note. At the very least, Klendjian said his group would be writing an open letter to the Chancery Lane leadership, challenging it over the legitimacy of its move. He encouraged the society “not to hide behind the comfortable multi-cultural language of diversity”.

The practice note – which the Law Society billed as being the first of its kind – aimed to assist solicitors “with the intricacies of Sharia succession rules, which is the code of law derived from the Quran and from the teachings and example of Mohammed”.

A Chancery Lane statement said clients in England and Wales “can legally choose to bequeath their assets according to Sharia rules, providing the will is signed in accordance with the requirements set out in the Wills Act 1837”.

But the LSS claims the guidance “normalises, legitimises and sanitises” a legal system that they maintain can be “fundamentally discriminatory against women, non-Muslims, and sometimes children”.

Klendjian told The Lawyer there should be no objection to Muslims seeking to incorporate Islamic provisions in their wills, provided they did not breach English law. However, he claimed the Law Society should not have issued an opinion on the validity of Sharia-compliant wills.

“The practice note is difficult to understand,” said Klendjian. “And there’s a good reason for that – ultimately it’s theology. The Law Society is a secular organisation – it represents solicitors of all faiths and none. So it is not appropriate, even as a starting point to guidance, for it to wade into theology.”

He suggested Chancery Lane officials had bowed to lobbying by pro-Sharia law lobbyists. “Why not guidance on Christian wills, Jewish wills or even Scientology wills?” asked Klendjian.

Indeed, some Muslim lawyers have also criticised the society’s guidance as being confused, not least in its lack of clarity over the considerable differences between Sharia-compliant probate law regarding the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam.

“This is the sort of confusion that happens when a secular organisation waddles into theology,” said Klendjian. “It assumes that Muslims are a monolithic bloc clamouring to live under Sharia, and sells out liberal and secular Muslims in an instant.”

The secular lawyers’ group also raised the prospect of the Law Society move creating confusion around intestacy.

“Imagine the scenario where a devout Muslim man dies without having written a will because he was suddenly taken very ill,” said Klendjian. “Is there an assumption that he would have written a Sharia will? Should his assets be disposed of under different intestacy provisions than those under English law?”

Law Society President Nicholas Fluck described as “inaccurate and ill informed” suggestions that Chancery Lane was promoting Sharia law.

“We live in a diverse multi-faith, multi-cultural society,” said Fluck. “The Law Society responded to requests from its members for guidance on how to help clients asking for wills that distribute their assets in accordance with Sharia practice.

“Our practice note focuses on how to do that, where it is allowed under English law. The law of England and Wales will give effect to wishes clearly expressed in a valid will in so far as those wishes are compliant with the law of England. The issue is no more complicated than that.”